Wednesday, December 31

Even in the down times, we can make this a bright new year

Louis Nowra is a successful, prolific, widely published writer, playwright, screenwriter and librettist. But despite his success, he feels down at times. In the Sydney Morning Herald the other day, he told of some of these times.

In his late 30s – he must now be 58 – Nowra began to live with an Aboriginal woman who had been removed as a child from desperate conditions, taken from her mother, placed in a Catholic girls home, and at the age of 14 forcibly sent to a distant country town to work as a maid.

Justine Saunders overcame those circumstances to become a model and then an accomplished stage, film and television actress. In his SMH piece, Nowra wrote:

There were many things that Justine taught me about the awful, dismal things Aborigines have had done to them and in many parts of Australia still have to endure: the cruel remarks, the constant belittling, the poverty and the cold indifference of government authorities.

On the other hand she grew tired of those white people who sought her out as some sort of spiritual guru, just because she was Aboriginal. It was as if she did not exist as a person but as an answer to these white people's lack of their own identity.

Perhaps her greatest scorn was for small 'l' liberals who seemed to be merely parroting platitudes about their love for Aborigines; but it always seemed to be talk and no action. "Sometimes I prefer rednecks," she would say after a meeting with such people, "because at least you know where you stand with rednecks."

Nowra doesn't have to spell it out. In my own way – after a much, much more modest interaction than Nowra's – I too treasure the understanding which came from the hospitality and the friendly discussions I've enjoyed with indigenous people over the years. Sometimes, too, I question whether whitefella do-gooders achieve much of value.

But there were other issues which made Nowra depressed, and they're ones I can understand. He tells of becoming involved as scriptwriter of an eight-part documentary series for SBS on Aboriginal history.

These four years proved to be exhausting, profound, exciting and at times depressing. When you study the history of Aboriginal and white relations since the First Fleet, the great difficulty is dealing with the distressing information that confronts you. It seems that wherever white men appeared in Australia, Aboriginal dispossession, deaths from violence and disease, and suffering followed. It took me some months to be able to deal with such horrific matters.

Nowra is not a bleeding heart, small “l” liberal white do-gooder. He saw the terrible social conditions in many indigenous communities and felt compelled to write about them.

The combination of history, government inertia, welfare dependency and alcohol had created a perfect storm of community dysfunction. So last year I wrote a slim book about it called Bad Dreaming.

The book was based on government reports, anthropologists, historians and journalists and Aborigines themselves. I can claim no originality. I wanted non-indigenous people to understand just what was happening to our indigenous population. Writing the documentary series convinced me that we owed an obligation to help a people we have treated so badly too much of the time.

Nowra's scriptwriting was for the SBS television series First Australians. Nowra acknowledges that when a documentary series goes into the can, the scriptwriters' work may be overshadowed by personal interviews and the visual material. So it was with First Australians – but it all came together magnificently.

And as Nowra says, SBS publicised it brilliantly. The reviews and articles about it were excellent.

It was so good it won this accolade from a Quadrant contributor: “ . . . another example of the constant reaffirmation of 'the invasion/genocide/stolen generation/racist version of Australian history' ".


Nowra says he thought the publicity would result in big audiences.

But I was wrong. The numbers generally hovered around the 300,000 mark . . . a bland middle-class family drama, Packed to the Rafters, attracts about 2 million per episode.

Before Christmas, your grumpy old blogger felt a bit down.

I tried to tick off the reasons. An unwise choice of festive season reading – Sebastian Faulks's novel Charlotte Gray, with the round-up of Jews in occupied France as the bleak backdrop to a rather unconvincing love story. Distressing news about an old friend's illness. Forgetting to count my drinks at several functions.
But for the major reason, I kept coming back to the failure of Grumpy Old Journo to win a wider readership. Is the blog irrelevant? Daunting? Or worse, boring?

I've scrolled through my old posts, and I remain proud of some of them and reasonably satisfied with most others. Most are well-written, some light and bright, and others – on, say, the Intervention or the Haneef affair – offered insights which stood up well in the ensuing months.

Like Louis Nowra, I'm dismayed that what I believe to be quality work can fail so dismally in the ideas marketplace.

For GOJ, one impediment may be a disconnect between the stories and the medium. If my yarns were printed on dead trees and thrown on to the front lawn in the morning, they might be picked up by more potential readers.

Younger and more lively-minded people don't use the internet to read essay-length pieces. They exchange ideas and information at a breathtaking pace, often on social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter.
I don't know how I'd go posting “tweets” to Twitter, but perhaps I should find out.


Elsewhere, a wonderful family Christmas restored my optimism and cheerfulness. I'm now confident the new year will deliver more opportunities, more adventures and more satisfaction, albeit in a rapidly changing and more challenging world.

I hope your path also leads you into a bright new year. Perhaps, now and again, we'll meet along the way.

Wednesday, December 10

Old and new, cultures meet in a schools festival

Photo of Aboriginal elder Bob Randall
Multiculturalism's big day in Woy Woy! It comes together next Tuesday at the Brisbane Water Secondary College senior campus (formerly Woy Woy High School), with three main components:


  • End-of-year reports and awards from the Yarn Up project, in which indigenous people people guide primary and secondary students from Woy Woy peninsula schools through their country, and explain the first Australians' relationship to it.

  • A visit by Uluru elder Uncle Bob Randall (pictured above) and filmmaker Melanie Hogan, producers of the film Kanyini, which was used to stimulate understanding and discussion at the start of the Yarn Up project.

  • Ten students and five teachers from Granville Boys High School – a school well endowed with ethnic cultures – will complete a two-day walk raising funds for prostate cancer research.

When I watched the 53 minutes of Kanyini last April, it hit my emotional buttons so strongly I feared my comments would be over the top. But I've just re-read my April 8 post, Kanyini – understanding Aboriginal culture, and I wouldn't change a word.

In a letter seeking sponsorships, Granville Boys High School captain and vice captain Berhan and Dean Kassem said:

Our school reputation in not good at the moment and we want to change this. This reputation is portrayed throughout the media and is not accurate. We know that this image is created by such a small number of students but it affects all of us.


To improve the image of our school and to let the community know that there are many great students at Granville Boys High School we have organised a WALK FOR CHARITY event.

At the Woy Woy school, the Granville boys will perform an Arabic drumming routine and a Pacific Island dance. You may learn more from their post on EverydayHero.

Here on our Woy Woy peninsula, Yarn Up is a worthwhile project, and I expect to learn on Tuesday just how successful it has been.

With plenty of activities, plus a sausage sizzle, the festivities begin at noon next Tuesday, December 16. I understand visitors will be welcome. If you'd like to come along, call Steve Collins at 02 4341 1899 or Jo MacGregor at 02 4341 1600 by this Friday, December 12. I'm told the best entrance will be from Greene St.

Monday, December 8

Does Woy Woy really need ten more ducks?

The scene: Woy Woy, not too long after dawn. Cars fly along North Burge Road and Brick Wharf Road, near the waterfront. The commuters know there's no time to be lost – for every few minutes' delay, they'll have to park all that much further from the railway station.

Then suddenly, everything freezes. Brake lights go on and off as drivers try to creep forward, but there's little point. Ducks are wandering along the road, many with a string of ducklings scurrying to keep up.

If you blow your horn, the ducks just stop and look at you.

Woy Woy has no shortage of ducks. Even a busy local magazine and web publishing company calls itself Ducks Crossing.

So how does your grumpy old blogger explain the ten little ducklings running round and round the mulberry tree, thwarting his best efforts to take a reasonable photo. Well, we'd had this Khaki Campbell drake for a while to keep the snails down and Merry thought he looked lonely.

Off to a poultry auction somewhere in the backblocks of Wyee, and we came home with the bird you see above – it's a Muscovy, albeit with a lot of black feathers with a greenish sheen.

After a while, she was sitting on eggs in a nest tucked behind a sheet of corrugated iron. For five weeks she sat, until the other day she emerged with ten little ducklings.

She a great little mother, wonderfully protective, is our Momma Duck. But alas, she can never be Nanna Duck from this brood.

She may look like a duck and act like a duck – indeed, she may think she's a duck – but she's really a goose. So our little ducklings are "mules", unable to have progency themselves, as this NSW Dept of Primary Industry advice makes clear.

Still, they beat painted concrete gnomes as a garden ornament. Just separate them from newly planted seedlings.

But ten of them! They'd look delightful on a hobby farm dam. Any offers?

Thursday, November 27

I think it's English, but what does it say?

My day brightens when Google Blogger emails me: "[Someone] has left a new comment on your post [whatever it was]". It doesn't happen all that often.

So I snapped to attention this morning when I saw this in my Inbox:


smithsan has left a new comment on your post "Indigenous care for indigenous people":

A critical multicultural approach situates cultural differences within the wider nexus of power relations, and helps overcome the negative stereotyping that often prevents inclusive, self-determined care. Recommendations are suggested for change at the societal, professional and individual level.
-------------
smithsan
exposure marketing


I think it's English, but what does it say? It looks like the gibberish one has to regurgitate to score a PhD in, say, gender studies or Eng. Lit. or journalism.

Is someone having a go at me? In my post on indigenous care, I turned away from the term "cultural sensitivity" because I don't think abstractions win arguments, and there's one argument I do want to win.

I believe some white Australians still believe indigenous people are racially inferior. They'd deny it, or rationalise it away, if asked. But they still believe in paternalism, and in an intervention which fails to consult the indigenous people they believe they are helping.

In the previous post, I chose to use a number of concrete examples, brutally expressed, to explain why too many indigenous people now find themselves in an underclass. Not all Aboriginal people experienced every type of discrimination, of course, but many encountered some of those listed. That's too many.

And that's a major reason Aboriginal people are over-represented in poorer socio-economic groups.

I'm still puzzled by "smithsan" and the comment. Clicking on the name brings up a Google Blogger profile page, but it contains no profile. Unusual.

Clicking on the link provided suggests an answer. "Exposure marketing" takes you to http://www.drivenwide.com/. And what do we find? It's an internet marketing service, and clicking "what we do" in the navigation bar takes you to a page which says Driven Wide offers social media optimisation and marketing, search engine marketing and optimisation, and social marketing.

Sadly, this grumpy old blogger must concede it's unlikely his arguments have won the heart and mind of "smithsan", whoever or whatever that is.

It more likely "smithsan's" comment was computer-generated after a search engine picked up some key words in my post's labels, and its purpose was to publicise an internet marketing service.

It's interesting the program was able to find a passage like "critical multicultural approach" to post as a comment, but it just shows what computers can do these days.

For a long time, I've though of studying Search Engine Optimisation. Grumpy Old Journo sure could use it, and if ever I tried to return to the paid workforce, I could try for one of those high salaries SEO experts can obtain.

--ooOOoo--

I did appreciate some praise "Woy Woy Steve" attached to my October 27 post about the Putt Putt regatta. From his profile, it seems Steve may have attended Woy Woy High School (now the Brisbane Water Secondary College senior campus) at the same time as some of my offspring.

A self-taught web designer, Steve has put up a first-class website, http://www.woy-woy.com/. I found its local history pages well-researched and interesting.

And while you're looking at all things Woy, you may also be interested in a site offered by Spike. Here's one of his blogs .

Sunday, November 23

Indigenous care for indigenous people

It's been around our region for 21 years, but I'd never heard of Daramulen Home Care until the other day when Kirsty Bissaker came to our monthly Central Coast Reconciliation Group meeting to tell us about this specialist service for Aboriginal people.

Ms Bissaker, the acting service co-ordinator, explained that Daramulen's clients are mostly elderly, some are children with disabilities, and about 20 per cent are adults aged 25 to 40.

Staffed by indigenous people, Daramulen operates alongside the government organisation which provides home care in the wider community. But it offers more for its indigenous clients – help with housework, social get-togethers called “yarn-ups”, and the extra benefits which come from the carers' cultural sensitivity.

Impressive. So I asked Ms Bissaker: “If Kevin Rudd gave you some of this money he's splashing around, what would you spend it on? What's your biggest need?”

She didn't hesitate. “Medical transport.” With low incomes, without cars, and often living in areas poorly served by public transport, her clients face real hardship if, for example, they must get from their homes to a medical centre three times a week. Adding to the problems of disabilities and infirmity, some clients are illiterate and find it hard to access those services which do exist.

The following are my comments, not those of Ms Bissaker (although I hope she'd agree). Sometimes people ask me why we should provide special social services for indigenous people. Surely we're all Australians, and if we're in need there should be no discrimination.

You might assume the whitefellas who ask this question are rednecks, but often they are not, and they deserve a considered reply.

Cultural sensitivity? Well, that's true – but we're not going to win hearts and minds if we argue in abstractions. Here are the answers I give:


  • If you're fifty or over, and you went to the flicks in many country towns, you'll remember when indigenous customers sat up front on wooden benches.

  • Even if some of your playmates were Aboriginal kids from down the road, they'd often be barred from joining you in the swimming pool. That exclusion generally held firm until after the 1965 Freedom Ride through outback New South Wales.

  • In country towns in NSW, and probably elsewhere in Australia, whites had a “local option” to exclude indigenous pupils from government schools. For example, when European settlers in the Manning Valley finally pushed the indigenous owners off their land and resettled many of them on a mission, the good people of Taree asked the government to bar the children from their schools, and the government set up the Purfleet Aboriginal Provisional School. Up and down the coast, in towns like Kempsey, or inland, in towns like Walgett, the story was the same.

  • What would you say if your Dad came home from the war in 1945 and tried to put his name down for a soldier settler block, only to be told “abos” weren't eligible?

  • And try to imagine this. You're playing with your friends, when Mum starts shouting, “Git! Git! Git outta here fast.” As rehearsed, you run for the bush or down into the creek bed. You peek through the scrub, see a couple of cars pull up, and some whitefellas stride into your homes. When you creep back, your sister is gone. Your Mum and your aunties are inconsolable in their grief.

All of these things happened within my lifetime, and therefore within the lifetimes of some of Daramulen's clients.

It's no reflection on indigenous people to say such experiences turned too many into an underclass – people who cannot assert themselves at school interviews, or know how to dispute local council rulings, or negotiate their way through our complex and overstressed health system. People who may be functionally illiterate after rudimentary education in mission schools.

Today, one can see rapid improvement in the pride and achievement of Aboriginal Australians. And while most do appeciate the goodwill and efforts of whitefella friends, it's clear much of the credit should go to indigenous workers and organisations who understand the special needs of their people.

Friday, November 14

Federal politics, media beatups, and other circus acts


Merry picked it straight off. "That picture's been posed". I lean over the breakfast table. "Well, of course it's been posed" – I peer at the tiny credit line in The Australian – "and photographer David Crosling has done it quite nicely."


"No, not that. It's that they're not really bowling. Where's the mat?"


She's right, you know. But I hadn't spotted it because I was still bemused by a story about Matt. Or more specifically, by the third par of this story about Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's finding the time to launch an anthology of the late Matt Price's satirical political columns from The Australian.




Just in case you can't read the adjacent image, here what the third par said:




By attending the launch, Mr Rudd showed his affection for Price and The Australian despite the furore over reporting of details of his recent telephone conversation with US President George W. Bush.


". . . affection for . . . The Australian . . . " An interesting choice of word, affection. Is it some sort of coded message?

It's hard to believe the paragraph would have run without the approval of the Oz's editor-in-chief, Chris Mitchell. Had Mitchell gone further, and "suggested" reporter Nicola Berkovic note Rudd's "affection" for his newspaper?

Unless you've been switched off for the past few weeks, you'll know "the furore" followed a report in The Australian four weeks ago which said Rudd had spoken by phone to soon-to-be-ex-President George W. Bush. Rudd had suggested a proposal for the G20 meeting, and Bush had asked, "What's that?"

What an opportunity! Malcolm Turnbull, exercising the prerogative of the opposition leader through the ages, went for the throat. An insult to our great friend. Putting the US alliance at risk. World leaders will never speak to Rudd again. Diplomatic blunder.

Okay, so your grumpy old blogger has taken some liberties here, and he certainly doesn't suggest Turnbull is a harlot. The phrase – "power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot through the ages" – was uttered by British Tory leader Stanley Baldwin, and back in 1931 he was speaking of Fleet Street newspaper proprietors, Lord Beaverbrook in particular. It's said Rudyard Kipling suggested the phrase to Baldwin, his cousin.

And for opposition leaders today, a more apt phrase might be impotence without responsibility. They can jeer, they can pontificate, they can offer bipartisan support – but the skilled media advisers in prime ministerial and state premiers' offices will plot to keep them on the sidelines and irrelevant.

Still, it was great while it lasted. When Rudd retorted that Turnbull should apologise for John Howard's remark that Osama bin Laden would be praying for a victory for Barack Obama, Turnbull seized the opportunity to distance himself from the former prime minister (read on for a little more on that theme).

Turnbull came close to disaster, however, when Family First Senator Steve Fielding said he would move for a Senate inquiry. What a dilemma for Turnbull! If his senators voted against an inquiry, he'd lose credibility. But if they set one up, look at the problems he would face:

  • The Senate committee of inquiry could not compel Rudd or his staff to give evidence.
  • Surely it would have to call Chris Mitchell, one of the guests at the dinner party in Kirribilli House in Sydney when Rudd spoke with Bush – and if Mitchell knew the source of the "leak" to his reporter, as one would expect, professional ethics would oblige him to refuse to answer. What then? Would the Liberal senators vote to throw the editor-in-chief of The Australian into jail?
  • If the senators baulked at jailing Mitchell, how could they require other witnesses to answer?
  • On top of that, could Turnbull rein in his more rabid senators – especially as they're from the hard right and don't want him as Opposition Leader anyway. It may be okay to call the Secretary of the Treasury, Dr Ken Henry, a liar. But to do it to the editor-in-chief of The Australian? Unthinkable.

Turnbull was lucky the Green senators refused to support an inquiry. When ABC radio's AM show reported their decision, it said the Greens had thrown Rudd a lifetime. But when you think about it, it must be Turnbull who was glad to receive the lifeline.

At this time, Turnbull seems to be ready to further dissociate himself from John Howard. I've already noted his repudiating Howard's criticism of Barack Obama.

Journalist and political commentator Christian Kerr wrote in The Australian on Friday that "this week Malcolm Turnbull irrevocably started to remake the Liberal Party in his own image."

Turnbull is thinking the same way [as Obama], Kerr wrote. Kerr quoted Turnbull's words and made a telling comment:

"There is no person who can look into the mirror and say 'That is an Australian face' or 'That is an American face'. The United States is a nation of choice, a nation of immigration – just as our nation is. It is in diversity that we find our strength."

You couldn't get much further from John Howard and the white picket fence.

Curiouser and curiouser. This note has been added to GOJ after reading the second editorial in The Weekend Australian , "Digging Up Old News", and subtitled "Media obsession with a mythical dinner party is peculiar".

First, your grumpy old blogger must acknowledge Chris Mitchell's insistence – one assumes he wrote or guided the editorial – that the Kirribilli guests were not at a dinner party. Kevin Rudd was entertaining guests (including Mitchell) in the lounge room, and Rudd was still in the dinner suit he had worn to a business dinner in the city. So we'll get that correction out of the way.

Beyond that, the editorial has one puzzling sub-text overlaid on another and then over another and another. If anyone can understand what it all means, please post a comment to GOJ.

Perhaps it explains Rudd's "affection" for The Australian, like, thanks for not dobbing me in.

In any event, did Chris Mitchell believe the conversation at Kirribilli House came under the Chatham House rule? As the Chatham House website explains (insisting there is only one rule, not rules as commonly written):

When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

It's an interesting speculation. When Rudd joined his guests in the lounge room after talking with Bush, did he say Bush had asked "what's that" about the G20? Was it a serious comment (which would confirm most people's belief that the current Leader of the Free World is a simpleton). Or was the comment just some light-hearted banter?

And did Mitchell arrange to steer the story's author, chief political correspondent Matthew Franklin, in the right direction, making sure his newspaper got a great story while he complied with the Chatham House Rule?

Another note, added after reading commentary by political editor Dennis Shanahan in the Weekend Australian's Inquirer section. As Shanahan wrote:

. . . reporting on a political story that involves your boss, your colleague, the Prime Minister, the US President, the press gallery, the Opposition Leader, the Senate and the Australian Federal
Police can be a daunting task . . .

Undaunted, however, Shanahan presses on to deliver his trademark blend of well-informed conservative sources and visceral disdain for non-conservative views.

Rudd has said, and the White House backed him up, that Bush did not make the comment. One assumes that Mitchell, who was present but is not commenting, believes Rudd did make the comment to the guests in his lounge room. If everyone involved is to be trusted, it means Bush did not make the "what's that" comment, and Rudd spoke in jest.

It's all been a great circus act, but like all entertaining acts, there comes a time to wind it up.

Wednesday, November 12

Fairfax shows how to accelerate the decline of a great newspaper


I'm glad I went back to read Michael Duffy's piece more carefully. I'd been at risk of launching an intemperate attack on the “right-wing Philip Adams”.

Last Saturday when Merry came back with only half the Sydney Morning Herald, and said the newsagent told her Fairfax had failed to deliver the second section to the Central Coast, it was almost a relief. There's too much to read already. But we had paid full price despite not receiving the Spectrum and Good Weekend liftouts.

Could we blame Fairfax's current “business improvement program,” ie, slashing staff numbers? Along with such encumbrances to profitability as sub-editors and customer service staff, had the company also pushed distribution supervisers – the guys who knew which bundles went on which trucks – into accepting redundancy?

Yesterday, I was grumbling about it at the No 1 ladies book club (I'm the only bloke), when I found the others were also cranky with the SMH.

Fairfax had also failed to include a Writers Festival insert distributed to Sydney readers. Signs in newsagents' windows showed this was a Fairfax decision, not an accidental blunder.

Perhaps those Fairfax chiefs on multi-million-dollar remuneration know better, but it seems a strange way to push a daily newspaper in a competitive market.

Right now, I have The Australian home delivered, six times Monday to Saturday, for just $4.95 a week. It began when a call centre rang to offer the promotional deal on the Daily Telegraph. Well, no, I haven't felt the need to read the Terror since I retired from it – what about The Australian? No problem. So I signed up for the promotional offer, and when that ended, for a long-term subscription at the same price.

Oh dear! I was going to talk about Michael Duffy, wasn't I? That's because what I did get of the SMH on Saturday included his attack on global warming theories, but yesterday when I clicked on the website of a leading authority he quoted, I found he'd misquoted it significantly. Perhaps I'll make that the next post.

In Crikey today, contributor "Broadway Betty" suggests shareholders at tomorrow's AGM in Melbourne ask directors: "Was an executive share retention scheme – in addition to cash bonuses and salary increases – secretly announced at the end of 2007?" If "Broadway Betty" is a journo, perhaps she should put her hand up for that redundancy offer. Unless, that is, she can explain how one secretly announces something.

Tuesday, November 11

There's always one more road to ride


A few days ago, I travelled a road so exhilarating for a motor cyclist and so stunning in its scenery, I just have to tell you about it.

I'd ridden to Muswellbrook to meet up with one of my sons, Matthew, who's working on a contract at the Bengalla mine. With all the mining, Muswellbrook is a boom town and I was glad he found me a $35 room in the Valley Hotel.

Muswellbrook is one of our most attractive towns, but as with so many others, the main street is full of empty shops – Coles has opened on the outskirts. Locals told me there's worse to come, with Woolworths planning to relocate from the heart of town to a new centre.

Mining boom towns aren't what they used to be. From about six o'clock, the guys started to arrive, still in work-stained orange visibility jackets. A few beers, a meal and a chat with friends, and they drift away.

Many work twelve-hour shifts, and they may be tested for drugs and alcohol as they clock on in the morning. By 8.30 pm, the Muswellbrook pubs are dead.

Next morning, I look for a longer way home – but not too much longer, and there mustn't be too much dirt. That rules out the great scenery on the Scone-Moonan Flat-Gloucester road across the Barringtons.

Then I remember the road I once took from Gresford to Singleton, years ago when Merry's back still allowed her to ride pillion. Once again, but in the reverse direction, it delivers an enjoyable ride. I throttle back into Gresford, past a general store which looks a good place for coffee, then over the hill to the twin village of East Gresford.

These are a lovely little townships, but they're quiet these days. Once a row of shops served timber workers, dairy farmers, and their families, and at one time construction workers from the Lostock Dam. Today the twin villages slumber in bucolic bliss.

I ride right past the East Gresford pub and head north up the Allyn River. But rather than face all that dirt road (I seem to remember fords, too), with a steep climb over the Williams Range, I turn right a few clicks out of East Gresford on a road signposted to Dungog. The map says it's the Bingleburra Road.

Wow! This is one magic road!

If you're a young fella wanting to punt the Ducati around sweeping curves and tightening zig-zags, this is the road for you. Even if you're a poseur astride a two-wheeled American agricultural machine, you should enjoy it.

Me? Back when I was a young fella, I admired the scenery too much as I skirted Canning Dam near Perth. It took me an hour to get the little BSA back on the tarmac. These days, I choose between doing the boy racer bit or slowing down to take in the scenery. Accept my recommendation. Take in the scenery. From this road, it's fantastic.

Sunday, November 9

Reflections on the death penalty

The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one's time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all. – H.L Mencken (US editor and essayist, 1880-1956)


So firing squads have ended the lives of the three Bali murderers.

Why am I not more depressed? Why do I feel so little dismay at their execution? Why am I now disturbed by the thought I may betray beliefs I have held since my teenage years?

The quote which leads this post is not strictly apposite to judicial execution. But its basic premise, that we must not suspend our moral beliefs when the cause becomes unpalatable, is relevant. (I had, in fact, stashed away Mencken's quote in case I ever felt the need to discuss again that despicable turd, David Hicks.)

I'd assumed the fight against the death penalty had long been won in civilised societies like Australia.

But a bit over a year ago, I was at the monthly meeting of a club for retired business and professional men. Our speaker was a retired police inspector, and when he said he still believed in the death penalty, a murmur of assent went around the room. Out there, support for the death penalty remains, although it's hard to assess how strong it is.

But even lifelong opponents of the death penalty may be having trouble arguing against the execution of the Bali murderers. They killed 202 people and maimed hundreds more (and it's understandable that Australians should feel strongly, because 88 of the dead and many of the mutilated were Australians).

The only regret the murderers expressed was that a few Muslims had died in the blasts. The images often showed them smiling, even gloating.

One can make many rational, practical arguments against judicially imposed death penalties. Very occasionally our juries and judges will convict an innocent man – and it's hard to make amends once you've hanged him.

When I was a young journalist on The West Australian, a serial killer terrorised Perth. Eric Edgar Cooke began his crimes in 1958 and continued until police caught him in 1963.

He confessed to more than 200 thefts, five hit-and-run offences against young women, five more attacks on women asleep in their beds. In all, he attacked 22 people and killed eight.

But in his confession, he claimed he'd committed two murders for which other men had been convicted. I remember we used to giggle at how convenient it was – the police wiped several hundred unsolved crimes off their books as they accepted all of his confession. All, that is, except for the two murders where they'd already put men away.

But it really was nothing to laugh about. A deaf-mute man, Daryl Beamish, was already serving a 15-year sentence for the 1959 murder of Jillian Brewer, and John Button was serving five years for the manslaughter of his girlfriend Rosemary Anderson.

Attempts to have their convictions overturned were not helped on October 26, 1964, when the hangman killed a key witness – Eric Edgar Cooke, the last man to be executed in Fremantle Prison.

Beamish served his 15 years, but in 2005 the conviction was quashed after evidence indicated Cooke probably was the killer. Thank God he hadn't been hanged. Similarly, Button's conviction was quashed in 2002.

The WA police and judiciary can take no credit for reversing this gross miscarriage of justice – it was almost solely the work of a Perth journalist, Estelle Blackburn, who was later honoured with the Medal of the Order of Australia and a Walkley Award.

Indeed, as some recent cases have demonstrated, Western Australia appears to be one of the few jurisdictions in which it is still considered acceptable for a crown prosecutor to fail to reveal evidence which may be favorable to the accused.

There are other rational arguments. Here are some: The death penalty doesn't deter crime. The executioners are likely to become brutalised or suffer trauma. If it's vengeance (rather than justifiable punishment), putting men to death must diminish us all.

And the claim that established execution methods – hanging, firing squad, pistol bullet into the brain, lethal injection or gassing, electric shock, guillotine – are quick and relatively painless is, at best, dubious.

Also, if we welcome the Bali murderers' executions, we put ourselves in a weak position to argue against death penalties against Australian drug mules in Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia.

But the issue goes beyond rational argument about the pros and cons of capital punishment. It is, fundamentally, a moral issue. So, as we contemplate our responses to the Bali murderers' executions, it's hard to avoid examining how we form our moral beliefs. Do we have the right to kill, or to endorse the killing, of men in cold blood, even with due judicial process?

For the past few days, I've been out on the motor cycle, touring wonderfully scenic country and finding new roads (I'll tell you about them later). But when I've picked up a paper in a cafe or watched TV news above the bar, I've had to confront my responses to the then-impending executions.

Yesterday morning, I opened The Weekend Australian and noted on Page 4 a longish comment piece by journalist Paul Toohey in which he agonises over the same questions. I empathise with him, although I feel he has trouble isolating the core issue – do we have the moral right to kill criminals in cold blood?

Toohey is a fine journalist, and his perceptive reports have given The Australian's readers a better understanding of issues involving the Federal Government intervention in Northern Territory indigenous communities. But at one stage, he appears to argue that because he cannot stand the sight of blood, and would not be able to pull the trigger or the trapdoor lever himself, the death penalty is wrong.

I think I'm made of sterner stuff. If my conscience persuaded me that a man should die for his crimes, and if absolutely no-one else could be found to do the deed, I could commit the execution. I oppose the death penalty not because I'm squeamish, but because I believe it's morally wrong.

How do we form our moral beliefs? Do we soak up the attitudes of fellow lefties, or on the other side, of conservatives sipping gin and tonics in a gentlemen's club (which may be where some judges reinforce their attitudes)?

Do we pray for guidance in understanding God's will? It doesn't seem to help much. The Christian community ranges from the supporters of departing US President George W. Bush, a devout believer who signed off on many executions as Governor of Texas, to those Christians who have devoted their lives to the abolition of capital punishment.

Perhaps, too, we should remind ourselves: The Bali murderers also believed they were carrying out God's will.

Notes: The crimes of Eric Edgar Cooke form a central element of Robert Drewe's book, The Shark Net, and the case is described well in this Wikipedia article.

Paul Toohey's comment can be read here.

Since this post first went up, the Australian Government, with the support of the Opposition, has announced it will step up an international campaign to abolish capital punishment. Here's the ABC report.


Monday, November 3

Well, what would you expect? Murdoch papers praise Murdoch.

You will not be surprised to learn that Rupert Murdoch's initial ABC Boyer Lecture received a good run in The Australian and its sister paper, The Daily Telegraph, and in all the other capital city daily newspapers in the Murdoch empire.

The Oz had a short writeoff on Page One, a longer piece, Challenges Ahead for Australia, on P2, and the full text in the Media section. Photos showed Australia's business and cultural elites mingling at the Opera House where they turned out to hear the speech. The Terror ran him on most of P2 and the full text further in.

Nor will you be surprised that the Oz's lead editorial, headed “Frontier spirit in an age of freedom,” carried a sub-heading, “Boyer lecture was rich in insights born of experience.”

But what may surprise you is that your grumpy, left-leaning old blogger, a former long-time hack in the Evil Empire, found himself nodding agreement much of the time as Murdoch explained the themes he will develop in the six lectures.

Murdoch agreed that many Australians would question his right, as a man who became a US citizen in 1985, to judge the country, but said: “The main reason I agreed to come to Australia to deliver these lectures is that the country I see before me simply is not prepared for the challenges ahead.”

Many people remain suspicious of Murdoch. They cannot forgive his chumming up to Margaret Thatcher and the brutal move of his London newspapers to Wapping, his support for right-wing politicians and causes in the US, his failure to speak up for human rights in China. They see bias in his newspapers, and in his giving too much space to hard-right conservative commentators like Janet, Piers and Andrew.

There is some truth in all that, but not as much as most lefties contend. And I believe Murdoch has moved to what I shall call, for the want of a better term, the conservative left.

He remains a supporter of those values which conservatives hold dear – a stable society, free markets, the rule of law, property rights, individual responsibility, and offering public welfare money only to those in need.

But he departs from the conservative right – what I call the group-think of the Quadrant mob – in ways we lefties should applaud. He praises Australia's open, democratic and multi-racial society, supports reconciliation with our indigenous people, and advocates liberal immigration policies.

He pleads for reform of a “19th century education system” that leaves too many children behind, a system which “effectively writes off whole segments of Australians”, quoting both the social injustice it perpetuates and also the damage it does to Australia's ability to meet the challenges of the future.

Although he doesn't accept the wilder claims of many greenies – who could? – he does accept the probability of man-made climate change, and supports action now. He has instructed his own business empire to improve its environmental impacts.

As Murdoch clarifies his thoughts and expands on these themes for the Boyer lectures, he seems likely to distance himself further from Australia's hidebound conservatives. However, we can hope that because of who he is, as well as the persuasiveness of his arguments, he manages to take some of them at least some of the way with him.

Is it too much to hope that at least some of our lefties will put aside their prejudices, give him a hearing, and make up their own minds?

Alas, sub-editors can't hide their mistakes

newspaper heading shows spelling error

Perhaps it's unwise to highlight the mishaps of other journalists, as Amanda Meade does in Talking Turkeys, a centrepiece of The Diary which she writes in The Australian's weekly Media section.

Today, they included “the wife of a 1980s corporate radar” to describe Janet Holmes a Court (from The West Australian's Weekend Magazine) and “not adverse to taking on political leaders” (The Age's Business Day).

Still, Ms Meade does have a reputation for reporting without fear or favour, even about her own newspaper – I seem to recall her being sidelined some years ago when she failed to carry out an instruction to remove an unfavourable reference to her employer – so no doubt Talking Turkeys next week will include the headline above, taken from the front page of The Oz's Business section this morning.

As News Limited's Style Book (the one I took with me when I retired five years ago) says:

Pass: The past tense of the verb to pass is passed, not past.”

My red pen also hovered above “bogy”, but the Style Book rules – correctly, according to the Macquarie – it's “bogy” for the ghost, “bogie” for an undercarriage, and “bogey” in golf. And, if you're interested, it's Colonel Bogey.
newspaper clipping shows misspelling of bogey

So the heading uses the correct spelling. Pity about the text, though.

To be honest, I don't get much of a laugh out of other journalists' errors. I've made too many myself.

Talking Turkeys works much better when it highlights the stilted or pretentious drivel which sometimes pops up in our media – or in the gushy handouts of public relations spruikers. That's the type of content which drives Pseuds Corner in British satirical magazine Private Eye, which may have inspired Talking Turkeys.

Tuesday, October 28

Is the Federal Police commissioner a servant of the government in power?



On August 30, I put up a post headed “This time Mick Keelty must do the honourable thing and resign.” It was not without some misgivings – it's a harsh call, and the Federal Police Commissioner appears to be a decent fellow.

But as the Dr Haneef affair showed, he allowed himself to become a servant of John Howard's government in its duplicity and spin doctoring. Last night, ABC television's Four Corners program confirmed my view.

In my August post, I wrote:

When he won office in 1996, one of Howard's first actions was to sack six public service department heads – a third of the departmental secretaries – in a sudden and brutal putsch.

Many of us saw it as an assault on the public service obligation to give "frank and fearless" advice to ministers, although some might argue it was to ensure the public service implemented the will of an elected government.

But a police commissioner is not just a public service head. He or she has an obligation greater than implementing government policy – an obligation to uphold the law without fear or favour. When Howard bullied Keelty into a humiliating submission, and Keelty accepted it, they both destroyed something of value.


Last night, Four Corners revisited the humiliating "clarification" John Howard and his chief of staff Arthur Sinodinus forced Keelty to make in a televised press conference in March 2004. You will recall this came after the Federal Police Commissioner made an honest comment on Channel Nine which did not accord with the Howard government's spin on terrorism.

Chillingly, the Four Corners program showed that John Howard did believe the AFP was required to do whatever he demanded, provided it did not involve breaking laws.

In the course of a program titled Good Cop, Bad Cop – in which journalist Sally Neighbour investigated "what's wrong with the Federal Police" – Mr Sinodinus gave an interview on camera, and he is to be commended for his frankness.

Mr Sinodinus said the AFP's job was to "work within the framework of policy, subject of course to their not breaking the law".

Sally Neighbour came back at him: "Is it their job to do the bidding of government as long as it's not illegal?" Sinodinus replied: "In my view it is."

Think about this for a moment. Is it taking it too far to say John Howard and his chief of staff believed it was acceptable to sool the Federal Police on to targets which suited their political agenda? Providing, of course, it did not demand something which would be illegal.

Did Mick Keelty fail to dispute that view, especially after having submitted to the brutal public humiliation imposed by Howard and Sinodinus?

Perhaps, then, I was justified in this comment in August:


We now know there never was a persuasive case that Haneef was involved in terrorist activities or knew of the Glasgow bomb plot.

Yet Keelty oversaw the expenditure of more than $8 million in the investigation. He let the AFP become part of a political agenda driven by John Howard, Phillip Ruddock and Kevin Andrews. He did so at a time when the British authorities had accepted Haneef's innocence, and when our security services like ASIO had already ruled out Haneef as a terrorist concern.


The Four Corners program may be viewed online at
http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/content/2008/20081027_cops/interviews.htm

My August post should come up on
http://grumpyoldjourno.blogspot.com/2008/08/mick-keelty-must-do-honourable-thing.html

A correction: In my earlier post I said John Howard saw Keelty's TV interview and went ballistic. In last night's Four Corners program, Mr Sinodinos said he saw the program and phoned Howard to say there could be a problem. Howard's response was: "Ring Mick and let him know that I'm very concerned about this because of the way it could be interpreted."

Monday, October 27

A great day at the Putt Putt regatta – just the tonic to cheer me up

Not just a community carnival, but one for wooden boat enthusiasts – just what this blogger needed to lift his spirits. For the past week, I've pushed the unfolding economic news to the back of my mind as I focused on getting my pretty little boat ready for the show.

But for that distraction, I might have become depressed, not just at the risk of the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression, but at the boring predictability of most of our bloggers and newspaper columnists. Yes, from both the left and the right.

And as for our politicians! Even allowing for the frustration at being in Opposition in times of national or global crisis, Malcolm Turnbull – the guy I still hope will remake the Liberal Party into something liberals could vote for – disappointed me with an unexpected shallowness, displaying more style than substance.

For a few days, I beavered away in the shed chiselling out and painting a nameplate for the transom, “Peter Pan”, and in smaller letters, “Woy Woy”. Once I would have paid a signwriter, but Merry has drawn shut the purse strings. Ah yes, it's millions of similar decisions which accelerate an economic hiccup into recession or even full-blown depression.

Still, it cheered me when a bystander at the the Lions Park launching ramp asked: “That's you, is it?” Right. Got it in one. Now I'm seventy, I can refuse to grow up.

At the ramp, we hoisted the sails – a standing lug mains'l and a little triangular mizzen out over the stern, both a rich brown tan – but with no breeze, we needed the little outboard to head across to the channel north around Rileys Island. With son Ben at the tiller, grandson Tim as crew and me as the proud old codger up front, we motored to the Davistown waterfront.

The annual Putt Putt regatta focuses on a marvellous part of Australia's heritage, the motor launches – most of them of traditional clinker construction – constructed in their hundreds by skilled boatbuilders all around the Australian coast, and powered by simple, robust motors.

Davistown is a fine site for this celebration. Tucked away on a creek running out of the Central Coast's Brisbane Water, it was the location of 19th and early 20th Century timber-getting and shipbuilding enterprises. Its name honours the Davis family, strongly involved in those early industries. Rock Davis operated a major wooden ship building yard across the water at Blackwall.

Peter Pan isn't a putt putt, so it's outside the main focus of the carnival. But it is a traditionally shaped wooden sailing dinghy (to a design by Hobart naval architect Murray Isles), albeit with a modern clinker ply and epoxy construction, so it did qualify as an entrant.

I had a great time yarning with other wooden boat enthusiasts, swapping and comparing information about designs and materials and suppliers. Joined the putt putt procession motoring up Paddys Channel, around Pelican Island and the oyster leases, and back through the Woy Woy channel and that narrow passage that divides St Huberts and Rileys Islands.

Mid-afternoon, when people were pulling their motor launches on to trailers, the wind had freshened. For the first time, we didn't need the outboard as we sailed back to the Woy Woy Lions Park ramp. A most enjoyable end to the day.

Let's leave it there. I may have some worthwhile ideas to put on this blog when I resolve some of those ideas I pushed to the back of my mind, but why spoil the mood today?

Saturday, October 18

Too hard to call?

Another update on The Australian's top-of-page strap heading across its news coverage of the economic crisis (see posts earlier this week).

Perhaps the Oz's editors have decided it's too hard to call between the "long slow crash of '08" and "the road to recovery". In today's Weekend Australia, the page of economic news reports carries no strap at all.

Perhaps Rupert Murdoch had a word with them. As Sydneysiders prepared their breakfasts this morning, their ABC news was carrying the first brief reports of his address to News Corporation's annual meeting in the US. Here are a few pars:

News Corporation chairman and chief executive Rupert Murdoch says the US could be heading into a prolonged economic downturn.

Mr Murdoch has told News Corporation's annual shareholder meeting the global financial crisis and a slowing US economy were already having an impact on the company. He said advertising revenue had fallen and the News Corporation share price had been beaten down.

Mr Murdoch expressed fears the US was about to enter a prolonged economic downturn, but stressed News Corporation was well positioned to weather the slowdown due to its $5 billion in cash reserves.


Meanwhile, Mr Murdoch continues to pour money into developing what is becoming the world's biggest integrated business and economic news empire. The big push began last year with his acquisition of The Wall Street Journal and its associated financial wire services.

Then he opened News Ltd's cheque book to poach the top financial journalists from The Australian Financial Review and other Fairfax papers. He didn't get them all, but enough came over to take his already talented team ahead of any competition. (Interesting to note that Fairfax management exempted the Fin from their "business improvement program", ie, staff redundancies and cost-cutting.)

Yesterday, the Oz launched the deal (note the trendy lower case), one of those glossy inserted business magazines designed for luxury goods advertisers, and it wasn't a bad effort at all.

The Business section of today's Weekend Australian launches a new business website which appears to be the equal of any I've seen. The site, www.theaustralian.com.au/business, is comprehensive, well organised and easily navigated.

The site is free, but one wonders whether the long-term aim is a service which will attract paid subscriptions. Mr Murdoch has been of two minds about charging for access to his online business newspapers.

When he bought The Wall Street Journal, he announced the highly regarded online edition at www.WSJ.com would become free, but soon changed his mind. Today, he told his shareholders that maintaining a "subscription wall" at WSJ.com was the best way to sustain revenue growth for the site. "Since it was acquired, WSJ.com's audience has surged 90 per cent," he said.

Access to much, but not all, of the Fin Review's online service, www.afr.com, requires a paid subscription. It's my guess Murdoch will keep his Australian business website free for as long as it gives a competitive advantage against the Fin, then will move to a paid subscription model with some limited free access.

In this article today, The Australian's editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell explains many of the features of the new website, and provides a link for even more details.

Oh, about top-of-page strap headings: The printed Australian newspaper's business section continues today with its own wording, "Global Financial Crisis".

Friday, October 17

Sorry folks, it's a Long Slow Crash after all

Has The Australian done a backflip? A few days ago, as noted in this blog, The Australian tried to mark the turning point for the economic and market crisis by switching the strap headline across its coverage from "The long slow crash of '08" to "The road to recovery".

Alas, share markets immediately nosedived again, United States data confirmed a recession, and signals firmed that one great hope for our economy, Chinese demand for our resources, appeared to be slowing.

So today, if you haven't noted it already, it's our solemn duty to inform you that the strap in today's Australian has reverted to the Long Slow Crash of 'o8.

Over on the Oz's high-powered Business section they just stayed with the more sober strap, "Global Financial Crisis".

Wednesday, October 15

Taking a positive view: Let's hope The Australian has it right


Perhaps many readers didn't notice, but today's Australian newspaper gave a significant endorsement to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's emergency economic measures in particular and those of the world's governments in general.

Over the pages it devoted to the global credit crisis and sharemarket meltdown, it had been running a strap, THE LONG SLOW CRASH OF '08. It was still using it yesterday, as the clipping above shows. But this morning the Oz had changed the strap to ROAD TO RECOVERY.

Let's hope our national newspaper has it right -- that we really have turned on to the road to recovery. The alternative is too grim, because I believe we were headed for a worldwide depression to rival the 1930s.

For most of my working life, I covered financial and business news -- going right back to the nickel boom of the late 1960s. The collapse of the "entrepreneurs" in the eighties, Paul Keating's "recession we had to have," the excesses of the dot-com boom . . . you name it.

But since World War II, the world economy has never faced a threat of collapse as great as the current crisis, such a locking up of the flows of credit vital to economic activity.

And if, as seems likely, Australia really is showing the way forward, there'll be another benefit. We won't have to put up with the Poms sending out another Sir Otto Niemeyer to tell us it's far more important to pay the English bondholders than worry about the unemployed at home.

The Australian published good news roundups, probably the best of all our newspapers Down Under, and a good range of opinions.

But one could not avoid noting that all the conservative commentariat was singing from the same songbook, downloaded from the same old right-wing websites. It was all the Democrats' fault, and Bill Clinton's in particular, for forcing America's otherwise prudent banks to make all those sub-prime loans to people who couldn't repay them.

Initially, Janet Albrechtsen went right over the top. She became particularly enraged at Kevin Rudd's criticism of greedy bankers, even suggesting it was the distressed borrowers who were greedy. One wonders why she was so upset. Is there something she wasn't telling us?

Tuesday, October 14

Major upgrade to OpenOffice should reward the wait

Last night, OpenOffice.org sent out the email many of us had been waiting for -- Version 3.0 had been released. Seven hours later, it followed up with another -- in the rush by thousands of users to install this major upgrade, the download site had crashed.

Nor were the OOo people able to say when it would be up and coping. They could only suggest people keep trying, for days to come if necessary.

Over recent months, I've declined offers of Version 2.XX upgrades while I waited for OOo 3.0. Now, from all I read, Version 3.0 will be a significant leap forward, fixing areas in which the previous versions were a bit clunky, and introducing many new features.

In these belt-tightening times, I'd have trouble justifying the purchase of an expensive, fully featured version of Microsoft Office. OOo offers most of the same functionality in a free package. Philosophically, I'm attracted to a community effort in which thousands of people around the world have contributed their experience, skills, talent and enthusiasm to a project for the common good.

I'm rushing off to bowls (although a look at the sky suggests I might soon be back at this desk). These links, copied off OOo's email, should give more information. They haven't been checked. I'll do that when I return.

Official Press Release: http://www.prweb.com/releases/OOo/3/prweb1459364.htm
Download: http://download.openoffice.org
Guide to new features: http://www.openoffice.org/dev_docs/features/3.0
Technical release notes: http://development.openoffice.org/releases/3.0.0.html
Availability of localised versions and ports: http://download.openoffice.org/other.html

Monday, October 13

Is this any time to be rational?

newspaper clippingOne has to feel some sympathy for Andrew Main, The Australian's business editor. On Friday's front page he pointed out – correctly – that many Australian stocks had fallen to levels which made them attractive buying.

When he wrote, Main was not to know that Friday would be long remembered as Black Friday, the day the Australian sharemarket slumped 8.3 per cent – its worst one-day fall since October 22, 1987.

A sharemarket which ended the day 42 per cent lower than its all-time peak last November, at a level which wiped off all the gains of the past five years.

The front-page headline from Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald sums it up. (The Weekend Australian's front-page treatment would not fit on my scanner.)


newspaper clipping

Yet if Main's advice made sense when he keyed it in last Thursday, it still makes sense. Main pointed out that share prices had dropped to about 10 times annual earnings, the lowest in 24 years. If you bought the good ones at these cheap prices, you'd receive a dividend of about 6.7 per cent if you include franking credits, and there'd be a good chance prices would rise sooner or later.

He concluded: “Once you focus on quality stocks and assess what they actually do, you start to wonder what the fuss is all about.”

The thought could have been addressed more felicitously – does he really think we're being a bit silly in worrying about a 42 per cent slump in our portfolios? – but he's right in one thing. At these depressed prices, a cashed-up investor should be able to find bargains.

As he said, no-one's going to ring a bell when the market bottoms out.

Still, as Main points out in this morning's Australian (in an article I couldn't find posted online), distressed sellers – funds having to meet high levels of redemptions, or individuals receiving margin calls on the loans with which they bought shares in more optimistic times – are the main force now driving share prices down. Reluctantly, these investors may be dumping quality shares just as hard as those of more dubious value – providing opportunities for any investor who can find the cash.

Those investors who already hold quality stocks, and have no pressing debts, may do better to sit out the crisis than try to pick emerging winners. It's a matter for the investor's temperament, as much as anything.

To take one example, it's easy to say, as Main did last Friday, that Woolworths shares have fallen from $34 to $28 at the start of the year, “even though people won't stop shopping for groceries”. Woolworths is a brilliant retailer, and as Main said, people need to shop. But families struggling to pay off credit cards may move to the new Aldi store up the road, where they'll save about 40 per cent on a basket of equivalent quality groceries.

Also, remembering that finance commentator Stephen Mayne has claimed Woolworths is also Australia's biggest poker machine operator through its stake in a Victorian hotel chain, a prudent investor might first examine the company's exposures if a prolonged recession slows people's gambling spend. Perhaps there's a risk, perhaps not.

Also, the investor is invited to count on an uninterrupted commodities boom. But anyone who remembers the end of Japan's “economic miracle” or the Asian “tiger economies” will remain wary.

Indeed, last Friday's sharp fall followed reports that China had asked an iron ore supplier to slow down shipments – a claim the Sydney Morning Herald made its front-page lead at the same time Andrew Main was telling people to “put sentiment aside and buy”.

Wednesday, October 1

Portrait of the old journo as a young lad

Card shows boy
Seventy. The big Seven-O. Your blogger has made it to 70!

The celebration could not have been more enjoyable – family and friends came together in a beautiful setting for most of last weekend.

I particularly appreciated this birthday card,from young friends who said it reminded them of the caricature I sometimes use to depict Old Grumpy

Our offspring, partners, and their offspring, along with some valued friends, set up a small tent village right on the Wangi Wangi Point. Others rented cabins in the adjoining Lakeside Tourist Park. For us – Merry and I – they provided a modern on-suite cabin on the hillside looking through the trees across Lake Macquarie.

caricature of blogger Ian Skinner
We took along two lovely small boats I've built, and they were a splendid sight as we sailed them out of the little bay and into the brisk breezes on Lake Macquarie.

We sipped beer and wine and soft drink, barbecued meat, nibbled salads, talked and laughed, and sat in camp chairs watching grandchildren bond with their cousins as they learned to mess around in small boats.

On Saturday night, we revived our traditional family recipe – Black Chicken – dating back to the days when everyone perched a grill or steel plate on bricks in a corner of the backyard and called it a barbie. Today, of course, it's de rigueur to have those huge trolley things with gas burners and dials and woks and rotisseries and hoods sitting on our patios – but they won't cook Black Chicken.

To make it authentic, our mob unearthed a family heirloom, a rectangle of woven steel mesh cut from some quarry screen we scrounged back in the mid-60s. You put it over an open fire, and lay out large chicken drumsticks and marylands (marinade them first if you want to be a bit fancy), turning them often as dripping fat makes the flames spit and flare while the skin darkens to near-charcoal. Messy, but delicious.

Sunday morning, I wake early, feeling great. Friends have given me a new book, Not The Costello Memoirs. Thank God it's not the real thing, and it's brief. Who wants to plough through the story of The Man Who Never Made It?

(Indeed, my friends appear delighted when I tell them the real memoirs are one of the publishing flops of the year. I point to this report in The Weekend Australian, headed “Costello outsold by a cookbook” and beginning, “Peter Costello's memoirs have been beaten at the bookstores by a children's fantasy novel and a book of home recipes that use four ingredients or less.”)

A most enjoyable book – the spoof, that is. Here's “Peter” talking about the early 1970s: "The immoral and discomfiting socialist agenda began – quite understandably – to destabilise me, as did an undiagnosed lack of calcium in my spinal column.”

But this is unworthy of me. How could I rejoice at Costello's travails on such a happy birthday weekend?

I put the book aside and walk down the hill to the campfire, where everyone is tucking into bacon and eggs and croissants. Overnight, the wind has changed and it's blowing strongly, so we decide against more sailing. Provided they stay well inside the sheltered bay, the grandkids may keep practising their newly learned rowing skills.

And so another happy day drifts by, talking with friends and watching children play, before we head home. Perhaps we can do it again soon – the annual Putt Putt Regatta at Davistown on October 26 might be next. Let's try for it.

LAkeside scene at Wangi Point

Above: The sheltered bay at Wangi Point. Our family and friends camped on the headland in background, and we stayed in a cabin just out of frame to the right. [The scenic image is from the holiday park brochure, while we''ll try to pay for our use of the birthday card image by suggesting you'll enjoy others on the publisher's website, which offers a free facility to send e-cards.]

Friday, September 5

Don't get hooked when phishers set their bait

If my inbox is typical, Telstra BigPond's customers are under a sustained phishing attack – and if that's so, Australia's biggest Internet Service Provider could do more to warn its customers.
Messages like this have popped up in my email half a dozen times in the past month – including twice last night:


Dear bigpond.net.au Webmail Subscribers,
This is to formally notify you that we are presently working on thebigpond.net.au web, and this can close your webmail account with bigpond.net.au completely.
To avoid this, please send your
Surname:
Password:
to bigpond.net.au customer care email
Address: [Here follows an email address @ “googlemail.com” – as if
BigPond would use a Google address!
]
Please do this, so your bigpond.net.au Webmailaccount can be protected from being close from spam emails.
Your immediate response is highly needed.
WE AWAIT YOUR URGENT RESPONDS
ONLINE DIRECTOR
JERRY WHITE

Such an amateurish scam, with its misspellings, illiteracy, improbable reply address and its failure to address the recipient by name, should not deceive anyone. But the fraudsters need to suck in only a few unsophisticated or inexperienced email users to reward their efforts.

As time goes by, these phishing efforts will become better presented and more convincing. We're already seeing that with spam which purports to come from banks seeking to verify our account details.

More than a month ago, after exploring the My BigPond website, I managed to find the Contact form to report spam, filled it out with all the details requested, and sent if off. I've heard nothing back. Not even a computer-generated acknowledgement, let alone any indication a real person had looked at it.

Perhaps BigPond cannot do much to stop spam originating from the servers of other ISPs, but I felt it could issue a more direct warning to its customers.

As it happens, the September issue of its online Ponderings newsletter – received today – does contain a general warning about phishing, although it fails to shout it specifically to BigPond's own customers. The item, Don't Get Hooked, does point to an excellent article among the Frequently Asked Questions listed under Help on BigPond's website. It's headed:
Phishing: What is it and how can I stay protected? Here's the link.

Saturday, August 30

This time, Mick Keelty must do the honourable thing and resign



This isn't some convicted, proven ruffian. This photo (published on the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald on July 19 last year, and reproduced a few days later in Grumpy Old Journo on July 24) shows the Indian doctor Mohamed Haneef being driven from the Brisbane watchhouse in a police vehicle. I wrote at the time that we should all find it deeply disturbing.

Just how disturbing, we learned yesterday. At 4.44pm, and no doubt hoping the strike-breakers shovelling US political copy into the SMH and the Melbourne Age would be too flat-strapped to notice, and that it would be too late for the evening TV news, the Australian Federal Police slipped out a statement which said:

The AFP has concluded its active inquiries, although some longstanding overseas inquiries are yet to be fully resolved. At the present time there is insufficient evidence to institute proceedings against Dr Haneef for any criminal offence.

Read that statement again. At the present time there is insufficient evidence. And yet, if it was just a matter of insufficient evidence, the AFP should not have concluded its active inquiries.

In other words, the AFP now concedes Dr Haneef is innocent – but still won't say it outright.

Back in March 2004, I felt a great deal of compassion for AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty – but I also believed a stronger man would have resigned at the time. I winced as I watched Prime Minister John Howard subject this decent man to the most public humiliation I have ever seen on television, worse than anything on Australian Idol or Big Brother.

Perhaps age and alcohol have damaged a few more brain synapses, but I seem to recall that our former Dear Leader read out a clarification of comments Keelty had made a few days earlier, while Keelty sat there, the TV camera focusing relentlessly on his abject misery.

You may remember what had happened. Keelty agreed to an in-studio interview by Jana Wendt on Channel Nine's Sunday program ahead of a week-long conference about terrorism with federal, state and overseas experts swapping ideas.

But four days before the interview, terrorists set off bombs on Madrid trains which killed 200 and injured 1500.

So it was a legitimate question from Jana Wendt: "Well, Commissioner, that brings me to the question that most Australians are asking themselves: could this happen here?"

Unprepared by spin doctors, Keelty gave an honest reply – a reply most Australians would have found moderate and reasonable:

Well, I think we've said all along this [battle against international terrorism] is an uphill battle. This is a marathon, not a sprint. The reality is, if this turns out to be Islamic extremists responsible for this bombing in Spain, it's more likely to be linked to the position that Spain and other allies [emphasis added] took on issues such as Iraq.

And I don't think anyone's been hiding the fact we do believe that ultimately one day - whether it be in one month's time, one year's time, or 10 years' time - something will happen. And no one can guarantee it won't. And I think there's a level of honesty that has to exist here in terms of what the problems are here, not only in Australia but in our region.

But on the threat level, the threat level here in Australia hasn't changed. It still remains at medium. It has been at medium for some time for an attack on Australians in Australia.

Yes, you and I might have found that a moderate and reasonable view. But Prime Minister John Howard saw the interview and went ballistic. He immediately rang his loyal chief of staff, Arthur Sinodinos.

Less than eight minutes after the interview ended, Sinodinos phoned Keelty in Nine's green room – the VIP lounge for interview guests – to communicate Howard's extreme displeasure.

Much of the information above comes from Alan Ramsay's column a few days later in the SMH. But if you would discount Ramsay as a Howard hater, let me quote another source, an edited extract from Anne Tiernan's book Power Without Responsibility, about the growing power of ministerial staffers to make public service heads defer to ministers' directives.

Under intense criticism from ministers and colleagues including chief of the defence force, general Peter Cosgrove, Keelty issued a statement clarifying his comments. Though the prime minister’s spokesman maintained that regular contact with the AFP was appropriate during a period of heightened security,” Sinodinos’s actions were seen as an attempt to intimidate and bully the commissioner, and an inappropriate intervention by a ministerial staffer.

There's a lot of claim and counterclaim about what happened as Howard and his staffers bullied Keelty into accepting the "clarification" which had been drawn up in Howard's office and presented to the AFP commissioner. But at that time, I felt Keelty would have won our admiration if he'd resigned and said why.

In the ensuing years, Keelty did a valuable job as he built relationships with the security forces in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. The worst blot on this record was tipping off Indonesian police to arrest a gang of drug mules who then faced the death penalty. He should have let them make the run, and grabbed them when they landed in Australia – a nation which does not support the death penalty, especially for stupid young Australians.

In May 2006, the Weekend Australian Magazine let Keelty tell of his anguish over the treatment he had received in March 2004 – and at the way defence force chief Peter Cosgrove had cut him dead from that point [Cosgrove was later to apologise].

If Keelty had resigned in March 2004 rather than accept his public humiliation, he would have left with his honour intact. Sadly, if he goes now – as he should – he will still be tainted by his complicity in deceit as bad as "children overboard" or "weapons of mass destruction".

We now know there never was a persuasive case that Haneef was involved in terrorist activities or knew of the Glasgow bomb plot.

Yet Keelty oversaw the expenditure of more than $8 million in the investigation. He let the AFP become part of a political agenda driven by John Howard, Phillip Ruddock and Kevin Andrews. He did so at a time when the British authorities had accepted Haneef's innocence, and when our security services like ASIO had already ruled out Haneef as a terrorist concern.

When he won office in 1996, one of Howard's first actions was to sack six public service department heads – a third of the departmental secretaries – in a sudden and brutal putsch.

Many of us saw it as an assault on the public service obligation to give "frank and fearless" advice to ministers, although some might argue it was to ensure the public service implemented the will of an elected government.

But a police commissioner is not just a public service head. He or she has an obligation greater than implementing government policy – an obligation to uphold the law without fear or favour.

When Howard bullied Keelty into a humiliating submission, and Keelty accepted it, they both destroyed something of value. In the wake of that destruction, perhaps it's understandable the participants saw nothing wrong with continuing to present Haneef as a terrorism threat.

At this point, let me slip in a plug for journalists. But for the doggedness of Hedley Thomas and other journalists, we may never have learned of the mendacity of Howard, Ruddock, Andrews and Keelty in the Haneef affair.

Let's thank also those newspapers which provided space and money to nail down these lies.

In particular The Australian, which noted in its Page One lead today that the AFP's confession came after it had tried for a week to get the AFP to say whether the Haneef investigation was still under way. You may also like to read the accompanying comment by the Oz's legal affairs editor, Chris Merritt.

We should also thank those lawyers who risked their professional careers to reveal the AFP's mendacity.

More than a year ago, my comments accepted the possibility that Haneef was guilty. But I still argued that he had a right to decent treatment, even though extraordinary measures might be warranted in the age of terrorism. Here's what I said:


Haneef may or may not have given support, or had some prior knowledge, of the attempted terrorist bombings in London and Glasgow.

A Brisbane magistrate found the case against him so weak she granted him bail, despite our anti-terrorism laws' removal of the presumption of innocence.

Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews immediately ordered Haneef's detention under his powers to lock up and deport undesirables.

Andrews said, and Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty backed him up, that he'd been shown secret files which justified his action.

Why weren't they put before the magistrate, even in chambers? Is it because magistrate Jacqui Payne is Aboriginal and has a reputation for requiring even the Queensland police to comply with the law? Perhaps the Feds thought they couldn't trust her – "not one of us".

As I keep saying, I may be a bit to the left, but I try to be fair. Reluctantly, I accept the need for some civil rights to be weakened as we protect ourselves against fanatics with murderous intent.

But when the authorities feel the need to detain or put on control orders those people who worry them, if they haven't been convicted let's accept a limited presumption of innocence. If we have to take them to detention, let's hire a limo to do it. Let's detain them in comfortable accommodation. A four-star hotel might be about right. And let them keep their shoes on.

Today, you can see what I was getting at.



Friday, August 22

When we're writing back-to-back, we're not saying it right

newspaper cutting

Caricature of blogger Ian SkinnerIs it only me – as pompous old gits say when they write Letters to the Editor – or do other readers find something irritating in the term “back-to-back”?

One expects it of sportswriters, of course. How often one sees a phrase like “the team won three premierships back-to-back”, conjuring up an image of the one in the middle spinning a pirouette to present a posterior to the next one along.

Usually it means successive. But whatever does it mean in the intro to this story in The Australian the other day? Probably the authors meant to say Obama and McCain took turns at answering questions from a hotshot evangelist. Or did they answer their interrogator by batting questions back at him?

It's only when you read the story to the eighth long, wordy paragraph you learn the Rev. Rick Warren conducted successive one-hour interviews, first with Obama while McCain and his staff blocked their ears, then with McCain, using the same set of questions. Why not just say so?

The Oz took the story from its new stablemate, The Wall Street Journal, acquired by Rupert Murdoch late last year. Like many quality newspapers in the US, the WSJ is so full of its own worthiness it bogs down in dreary writing.

That's one reason US newspaper readers are defecting to the internet at a far greater rate than those in Australia.