Lay down misere


Andrew Elder has written an excellent piece suggesting that the Liberal Party is engaged in trying to makeover Tony Abbott’s image into that of an Antipodean Ronald Reagan:
“The sunny optimism and pleasantness that Abbott showed in his 60 Minutes appearance reminded me of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s demeanour made him more appealing than his policies of cutting social welfare and decreasing taxes for the wealthy might otherwise have seemed. And he diminished criticism by not letting it get to him.”

I reckon Andrew is probably right. A very difficult tactic to counter as Reagan’s opponents from Carter onwards discovered. “Don’t worry be happy” could be a theme song with an Australian accent for the “Tony One Three” campaign. The more Gillard and Swan attack with, you know, facts about the economy, the more Albanese boasts about 500 pieces of legislation, the more it reinforces their image as being negative tinkerers, while Tony just beams his way through. May, as Andrew suggests, use Reagan’s “there you go again” to deflect any of that troubling discussion about actual policies. Just vote for him, the message will be, and it will be morning in Australia and happy days will be here again. A vote for Gillard, the implicit message will go, is a vote for a misery guts who thinks Australia isn’t perfect, that things need fixing, that people should, in short, worry, be unhappy with their lot.

And yet, and yet… it’s a tactic that relies totally on the acquiescence of the media to succeed. Relies on them being taken in by the sunny smile and the inability to hear questions over the roar of the helicopter. Needs them to be also captivated by the idea that all will be well, don’t you worry about that.

Because it could so easily go the other way. The first to try something like this was Harold Macmillan with his “Never had it so good”. It worked, because many workers were better off, and the economy was going well, and Macmillan won a big victory in 1959. In retrospect though it is seen as an “out of touch with the workers” comment, and is often used to pour scorn on those who use the Reagan tactic.

Imagine, for a moment, that the present Australian government used the Macmillan phrase, or some equivalent. Tried to be sunny and optimistic about the future, didn’t bother people with policies, indicated by their demeanour and smiling expression that the good ship SS Australia was sailing along smoothly under the light touch of a Labor captain.

Before the PM had finished speaking the News Ltd presses would be running hot with Julia Gillard’s face photoshopped on to Macmillan’s body. The ABC reporters would be hot-footing it to western Sydney to find pensioners, old people, migrants, doing it tough, demanding to know how the PM could live on their pensions or unemployment benefits. “Rooted” of Rooty Hill would be writing letters to the Sydney Morning Herald suggesting that the PM was a silver tail from Kirribilli who wouldn’t know the price of Coles Brand bread. Battlers would be queuing up on Alan Jones radio to demand an election to throw this out-of-touch government on the scrap heap of history while Alan agreed that these people should be forced to live on he, Alan’s, wages for a week and see how they got on.

And the more Julia and Wayne tried to smile and be sunny through this onslaught, the more out of touch they would be portrayed as being. And Tony Abbott would appear on breakfast tv looking serious and demanding that the government be honest with people about how tough they were doing it, and promising to give everybody a million dollar note the day after he became PM. Suddenly misery would be good for electoral success.

And the Libs would win with a lay down misere against a government that thought it was holding all the aces.

All Greek to me


Hardly a week, hardly a day goes by without examples of police brutality being reported somewhere in the world. Mounted police charging into peaceful demonstrators, suspects tasered to death, handcuffed prisoners shot dead, people in custody beaten up in watch houses, arrested and restrained people sprayed in face with capsicum spray, people dragged behind police cars, people in police trucks left to die from the heat on hot days, you name it, it’s happened somewhere yesterday, happening today, will happen tomorrow.

All par for the course when armed, uniformed men, with absolute authority, are given power over the powerless. Much the same happens in prisons. Or in wartime. But I didn’t want to talk about the actual brutality so much, as about what follows.

Generally nothing.

As soon as an accusation is made, or CCTV or mobile phone footage comes to light, the police force swings into action. Counter accusations will be made against brutalised victims, calls for consideration of “context” of the event, demands that it be recognised what a difficult job police have. Leading politicians, high-ranking police chiefs by their side, will, grim-faced, support their thin blue line. Internal enquiries will be promised. Things will be got to the bottom of.

Police union heavies will hold press conferences, appear on shock jock radio, calling for sympathy and understanding for the traumatised policemen involved, demand that no action be taken, criticise even the suggestion of a totally secret internal investigation.

What there will not be, from any policeman or policewoman, is any hint of sympathy for the victims of the police action, or any hint of criticism of the police concerned. Call that solidarity, this is solidarity. The thin blue line is suddenly very thick indeed, guarding the bridge against the barbarians. The barbarians being the 99.9% of the population who are not members of the police force.

The other occupation, apart from police, derived from the Greek word “polis” meaning both city-state and body of citizens (who created and governed the city-state) is politician. Hardly a week, hardly a day goes by without examples of politicians making sexist and racist remarks, using refugees as political footballs, talking garbage about climate change, favouring the very rich while pretending at principled action, and so on. You think of a piece of wrong-headed, stupid, nasty and vicious comment that could be made, and it was yesterday, is being made today, will be made tomorrow.

Bad enough that we have people in politics with minds like gutters, sewers even, but it gets worse. No sooner is the comment made than leaders of the political party concerned, fellow members, will be blitzing tv, radio, newspapers, to defend the obnoxious remarks, spin them, soften them. Shock jocks will join in to make it seem that this new level of gutter politics is perfectly reasonable, honest, accurate, is now, in fact, the new norm.

What there will not be is any hint that the politician was wrong in what they said about refugees, Aborigines, climate change, single parents, lesbians and gays, environmentalists, the poor. The thin blue line of conservative politicians will be there to hold the line against the outraged politically correct 90% of the public who do not share those views.

Look I get it, really I do. Football players will rally around someone who has stamped on an opponent’s head, soldiers around those who have shot civilians, doctors around those who have damaged patients, lawyers around those who fail clients in court. Defend your fellow workers when they are in trouble and they will defend you when you are. But even without that reciprocity element, the compulsion to look after your own is very strong, perhaps hard-wired back to when the first band of early humans dashed across the savannah pursued by lions. Even on a much larger scale, the concept of “my country right or wrong” “love it or leave it” seems to be a common feature of countries which differ in everything else.

Poor young Bradley Manning has recently completed 1000 days of solitary confinement in very nasty conditions, not even actually charged, let alone convicted. He was a whistleblower, but those responsible for the nastiness he helped expose (for example the helicopter crew massacring Iraqi civilians in Baghdad), remain unpunished, uncriticised even, while he has been subject to the acrimony of a whole nation.

The American government seems determined to ensure that Manning’s treatment will be a warning to others, that no one will ever again break ranks and reveal wrong doing. That the interests of the state and those of its citizens are no longer inextricably linked as the Greeks had envisaged.

Police and politicians seem to have never believed they were. I don’t get it.

It’s all Greek to me.

Never the Bride


Has been often said that Aneurin (“Nye”) Bevin was the greatest Prime Minister Britain never had, and no one could argue with that. However I can’t think of any other Post War British Opposition Leaders who didn’t win election as PM about whom you would say that (can any of you dear readers?).

Got thinking about that when a reader responded, on Twitter, to the previous post with a question as to whether I agreed Kim Beazley was the best Prime Minister Australia never had. I do agree with that (with some reservation about religious influence) – his background, intellect, education, experience and big-heartedness (or is that “big-tickerness”?) made him ideally suited to instantly fit into the job. As he has into the role of Australian Ambassador to America.

But beyond that it’s difficult to think of any others that would have been a gain. I suggested Bert Evatt, but you’d have to restrict that to his earlier years in his prime. Probably not (with all due respect) Simon Crean, although he would certainly have done a highly competent job. And not John Hewson, but I’ll come back to him.

Any of the other possibilities are farcical – Sneddon, Peacock, Downer, Calwell (although Arthur would certainly have created a different Australia, by no means necessarily a bad thing) – why, you might as well suggest McMahon as foreman material. What? Oh.

But what about Hewson, you ask? Well, certainly a smart man. And since losing the unlosable election of 1993 has been solid on climate change. But he is what he is, something of a Malcolm Turnbull twin. Uncomfortable with the Billy Tea Party no-nothings of the Abbott Liberal Party, but at the same time big business to his conservative boot straps.

So my gut feelings at the time of Keating’s “Sweetest one of all” 1993 victory were mixed. I think I sensed instinctively that while the Left had won a battle it had lost a war. Keating and Labor were encouraged to believe that Liberal-Lite was a recipe for continuing success. And then were swamped so badly in 1996 when John Howard’s Liberal-Heavy Brigade rolled in that they would be out of power for a political generation of 11 long years of backwards clock-winding.

A Hewson victory in 1993 would have let people see what the modern Liberal agenda really is (as in Newman’s Queensland more recently), and Hewson couldn’t have carried off the Howard Battler vote, nor the dirty pool, of people like Reith, in order to stop the public strongly rejecting neoconservatism in 1996 for a win by Kim Beazley. Ah, these what-ifs of history are intriguing, are they not?

But mentioning Kim Beazley brings us naturally back to America. If Australia, like Britain, only had one great PM who never was, how has the American public treated its candidates? Well, remind yourself that this is a country that voted in Nixon, Reagan and GW Bush NOT JUST ONCE BUT TWICE! Giving Eisenhower, Clinton and Obama two terms goes nowhere near balancing those appalling decisions. And while it’s pleasing that Dewey, Goldwater, Humphrey, Dole, McCain and Romney never got to stand on the bully pulpit, a country which didn’t have Presidents Stevenson, McGovern and Gore (not to mention killing Robert Kennedy as well as his brother) is a country far more wasteful of leadership talent than the UK or Australia.

And all that of course is to leave aside the absence of potential female leaders who never got above the glass political ceilings. Just one each in UK and Australia. The one-off force of nature that was Thatcher couldn’t be held back, and Julia Gillard only made it in unusual circumstances. In America Geraldine Ferraro was restricted to number two behind the unimpressive Mondale, and Hilary Clinton just failed at the last barrier against the Obama unstoppable force for “change”, although hopefully she will get a chance to win in 2016. Sarah Palin of course was chosen as a token, not of her femaleness or intelligence, but of her ability to grunt speeches at the equally nutty Tea Party wing of the Regressive Republican Party. But how many talented women in all three countries have never had a chance to even seek the top job?

Now that’s a lot of best prime ministers (and presidents) we’ve never had.

Ill wind


This month, once again, air pollution in Beijing has been in the news again. The only new part was that some enterprising fellow was selling bottled air to the public! Let’s leave that for a moment to sink in.

Yes, bottled air. I mean, once upon a time bottled water seemed the ultimate in environmental madness, but we as a species have now really excelled ourselves.

Still, an ill wind and all that, the right-wing think tanks of the US and Australia will be pleased. You see their major task, and this of course has nothing, I repeat nothing, to do with the big corporations that fund them, is to get rid of all regulations in their respective countries. “The Market”, they profess to believe, and I am sure, almost sure, this is a genuine belief they would hold even without funding, will take care of the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, once freed of the terrible burdens of red, black, green, purple tape.

And here in China (just a touch ironically, but never mind) is the perfect example of their belief in action. Allow business to pour fumes into the air unchecked and, cometh the hour, cometh the libertarian, someone will be ready to sell bottles of less polluted air to twenty million people.

Not saying their beliefs haven’t been proved correct over and over. Here the collapse of a building erected without the burden of building codes provides work for bulldozer drivers in the clean-up; there people burnt in a factory with no fire escapes or sprinklers will provide work for undertakers. Polluted drinking water provides work for medical personnel, as do train and plane crashes, and cigarettes.

In fact scarcely a day goes by but somewhere in the world someone, as well as the owner, is making money as a result of regulations unwritten or unenforced. And, thanks to the think tanks succesful fight against any action on climate change, the whole world is still the oyster for energy companies as well as forestry industries, fisheries, agribusiness.

What’s the old Yorkshire saying – ah yes, “Where there’s muck there’s brass”.

The Colour Purple


Media Matters has analysed media coverage in the US media of climate change in recent years and found, in spite of record temperatures and droughts etc, that coverage was actually declining. Furthermore, even when climate change was mentioned, the vast majority of those interviewed were Republican climate change deniers, with actual climate scientists rarely if ever interviewed. I don’t know if a similar study has been done recently in Australia, although there are studies of the abysmal News Ltd newspapers coverage, but it is absolutely clear that similar, if not worse, statistics would apply. I’m looking here a one particular Australian case which probably has relevance everywhere.

The record high temperatures in Australia this week, followed by devastating bushfires, were an obvious “teachable moment” for the media to join the dots for the public. This is what climate scientists have been predicting, this is what happened, this is what the future holds. Instead there was again a studious silence. It was as if there was no such thing as climate change, as if (like the America drought last year) these things were happening by chance in some world in which nothing else had changed.

Here is a recent example from Australia’s national broadcaster the ABC. Some background. The “7.30 Report” is a relatively serious current affair program, immediately following the main evening news bulletin, and often expanding on the main stories from the news. On the 8 January, as temperatures soared and fires raged, a great deal of the News Bulletin was devoted to those events, and then the 7.30 Report devoted the whole program to them.

None of the news items mentioned climate change, nor did the 7.30 Report in its first half, to my increasing frustration and yelling at the tv set. Then came an interview with “Alasdair Hainsworth from the Bureau of Meteorology”. The presenter, Ben Knight, introduced the segment by noting temperature records, and then noting that the Bureau had been forced to add more colours, black and purple, to its temperature maps to cope with the new high records. Extraordinary, right, and the obvious time to have a discussion about climate change, and indeed Mr Knight began the interview with the question “why are we in this situation where Australia is breaking these temperature records?”

Yes, I thought, here comes a decent climate change discussion at last. But I was wrong. Whether by design, or because that was the way the meteorologist interpreted the question, we immediately moved into a routine that has become very familiar. The ABC (and other networks) when it asks about the cause of events, means only the proximate cause, not the ultimate one. By this means, turning climate discussions into discussions about weather, every time, it avoids every opportunity to talk climate change. And so it was yet again, Mr Hainsworh talking about the trapping of heat on the continent, lack of cloud and moisture, delay in monsoon season and so on. Now, fair enough, this seems to be Mr Hainsworth’s area of expertise (a manager, Assistant Director Services, a meteorologist involved in IT systems and so on, his team recently won an award for “Our Next Generation Forecast and Warning System was highly commended at the Comcover Awards for Excellence in Risk Management in March 2012. These awards recognise exceptional and inspiring leadership in the management of risks faced by Commonwealth Government agencies. The judging panel recognised that the system improved our ability to manage and inform the community about severe weather events, including severe thunderstorms and flash flooding. These events present a significant risk to the safety of the Australian community”). But that being the case, why was he asked to appear? Well, apparently because he is responsible for the area that had to put new colours on the map. OK, now we have an another opportunity to talk climate change.

And here we go, the conversation proceeding as follows:

“BEN KNIGHT: It’s always a difficult question but how much of an aberration is this or does this actually fit into this pattern we’ve seen over the past decades where it’s been progressively getting hotter and hotter?
ALASDAIR HAINSWORTH: Certainly I can comment that this has broken the record as the hottest period. We’ve had six days in a row where the national average maximum temperature has been in excess of 39 degrees. The previous record was four days and we’ve also seen the hottest average day in Australia which was Monday and perhaps it could have been broken again today, although it’s somewhat cooler in Tasmania today. So, that may not be the case. Certainly it’s almost unprecedented as far as records are concerned.
BEN KNIGHT: And you now have this really quite interesting situation where Australian temperature maps have actually had to change because previously they only went up to 50 degrees, we’re now seeing that you’ve got an extra couple of gradings in purple and black to show temperatures which go beyond 50 degrees and indeed on Sunday and Monday in parts of Australia are forecast to do just that?
ALASDAIR HAINSWORTH: Yes, that’s right. The charts previously did go above 50 degrees, our models certainly were picking temperatures above 50 degrees but they were, it was showing up as white and so we decided that we would alter the temperature scale to ensure it showed it properly and we’ve added the extra two gradations which take the temperatures up to between 52 and 54 degrees Celsius.
At this stage we’ve only seen the first gradation, which is between 50 and 52 populated but yeah, it’s certainly extraordinarily hot over South Australia and central Australia and unfortunately it does appear as though it’s going to, it’s set to continue.
BEN KNIGHT: Do you think we are seeing a new reality, a new paradigm?
ALASDAIR HAINSWORTH: Well, as far as the models are concerned then yes. We haven’t seen these temperatures before but by the same token our computer modelling is getting better, it’s getting more accurate, it’s getting higher resolution. So it could be a combination of these factors which in actual fact just means that it’s actually modelling these things better, that it may not necessarily mean that they haven’t happened before but it’s simply that we haven’t been able to model it before.”

Now I had to not only listen to this extraordinary exchange, but read it several times, to try to make sense of it. I think we have here not really a conspiracy of silence, as it were, but more a combination of circumstances resulting in the same outcome. Mr Hainsworth, I’m guessing, is there because the ABC researcher rang the BOM and said we want to do an interview about this heatwave and about the altering of the weather map parameters could you put us on to one of your people to interview please? And the BOM public relations person has said, oh, you want Mr Hainsworth, his area is responsible for the map. So there we are. Mr Hainsworth is there to talk about the map (and is in any case not a climatologist), Mr Knight is there to talk about record-breaking hot weather (although I am guessing he is also under some kind of ABC protocol that doesn’t let him use the phrase “climate change”).

So, potential cross-purposes established, we start this part of the interview. Mr Knight tries to ask whether this hot weather is the result of the changing climate (without using the term, instead going for the euphemism “past decades where it’s been progressively getting hotter and hotter”) or is some kind of “freak event” as it were. Mr Hainsworth is there to talk about hot weather events, and about his map which reports them, so he does. The map and nothing but the map.

Mr Knight, perhaps hoping that although he can’t mention climate change, perhaps he can get his interviewee to do so (again, I am guessing that an ABC protocol may specify this) tries again with a different euphemism. Are we, he asks “seeing a new reality, a new paradigm?” Knight (again I’m guessing) hears his own question as “come on Buddy, talk about climate change FFS, ‘new paradigm’, get it?”. Hainsworth, having been invited on to talk about his map, hears “how did you construct your wonderful new map on your computer, what were the computer paradigms?” and answers accordingly, yes indeed, our computers are bigger and better so the maps are getting better. Or perhaps I am being too kind.

Whatever, the outcome is that extraordinary weather, a clear prediction of climate science, and obvious further evidence that the planet is warming, are both apparently “discussed” in serious tv programs on the national public broadcaster without climate change ever being mentioned. Furthermore the guest manages (I think unintentionally) to suggest that all of this could be just some kind of computer modelling glitch and we aren’t really getting hotter at all. In any case, it’s all because of some odd combination of weather circumstances. (It’s worth noting that the Bureau of Meteorology has apparently issued a statement I can’t find that “Clearly the climate system is responding to the background warming trend”. Which is fine but too mild, and as far as I know was little reported if at all).

Now, if I were to complain to the ABC about this, I would be met with incredulity. “What are you talking about? We talked about the map and got the senior person from the BOM responsible for it to talk about it. What more do you want?” And, at one level, fair enough. But at another level, why not get a climate scientist on? Why not mention climate change by name even once in half an hour of news and current affairs tv?

The next day, by contrast, the media was full of the statements by Warren Truss, leader of the Right Wing National Party and future Deputy Prime Minister in a conservative government. No problems with euphemisms, or being cautious for Mr Truss. He announced that linking heatwaves and record temperatures and bushfires with climate change was “utterly simplistic”. He went on to say that “carbon dioxide emissions from bushfires over the past week would eclipse those from coal-fired power stations for decades. Indeed I guess there’ll be more CO2 emissions from these fires than there will be from coal-fired power stations for decades”. It hardly needs saying that Mr Truss has done no research in climate science, has done no postgraduate degree in the subject, and in fact has no undergraduate qualification of any kind. He began work as a farmer, then went into politics.

It also hardly needs saying that his CO2 from bushfires comment is mind-numbingly wrong. “bushfires this year have emitted an amount of CO2 equivalent to 2% of Australia’s annual emissions from coal-fired power. The current bushfires must burn an area of forest greater than Tasmania to generate CO2 emissions equivalent to a year of burning coal for electricity. And the current bushfires must burn an area of forest the size of New South Wales to generate CO2 emissions equivalent to a decade of burning coal for electricity.” In addition of course, the CO2 from bushfires will be reabsorbed as burnt trees regrow, so, unlike coal power stations, there is no net gain of CO2 from bushfires at all. Again, to my knowledge, there was no fact checking of Mr Truss on tv when he was interviewed, or subsequently. Certainly there was none, nor any contrary view in the News Ltd paper report I saw.

So Climate Change denialists, Right Wing politicians, are able to make any outrageous nonsense claim (Mr Truss also said “‘I’m told it’s minus one in Mt Wellington at the present time in Tasmania. Hobart’s expecting a maximum of 16. Australia’s climate, it’s changing, it’s changeable. We have hot times, we have cold times… “!) they like and it will be hyped up by the media (big headline in the Herald-Sun “Climate change link to heatwave, bushfires ‘utterly simplistic’, says Warren Truss”). Conversely, it seems, any situation in which the reality of climate change might by chance become obvious to the public is played down, or structured in such a way as to avoid the possibility of information transfer to public ears.

It has so far proved impossible to get past the media who are guarding the gate against any possibility of action on climate change. The time has come for more direct action, more big claims, like those of Truss but based on reality not fantasy. Aim to generate headlines in spite of the media. And every time you get a chance at an appearance on tv or anywhere else in the media, keep saying “climate change” over and over. The time for being shy, unobtrusive, in the climate change closet, is over, the time has come for purple prose to go with the new purple patches on the map.

Bad Sports


The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton” (Duke of Wellington)

After the recent horror in Newtown, Connecticut, all the usual suspects started trotting out their usual gun apologia, in America and here.

Even the good guys though, really don’t get it. Michael Bloomberg, for example “Nobody questions the Second Amendment right to bear arms”. But why not Michael, why not? Everything else in American society can be questioned but not rampant gun ownership? And here, Joe Hockey, also meaning well said he “couldn’t see why any member of the public, apart from farmers and sporting shooters, needed guns”. Quite right, but why should there be “sporting shooters” Joe (farmers are a different question, but I think also shouldn’t be an exception)?

People, like other animals, have always played games. The simpler kinds of athletics like running and jumping, and games involving some kind of ball or similar object, have been played in all human societies. As have frivolous ones like kite-flying, or spinning tops.

But there are other, more complex games, that develop to reflect, and reinforce, particular cultural or social factors in societies, and these come and go throughout history.

Some, many, are used (like the play of lion cubs or foxes) to train the youth of the society in martial pursuits. In Ancient Greece games like Javelin and Discus throwing, and wrestling; in Rome chariot racing, and gladiatorial contests; in Mediaeval England it was jousting and archery (Henry Eighth making this explicit in his law that the young had to practice archery); later, in many societies, it was guns used for target practice, horses doing dressage. Other games relate to people turning their working day occupation into a game or sport – for example wood-chopping, sailing and rowing, hunting, horse riding, motor racing.

Over the last few thousand years societies have grown out of some sports, left others behind as archaic, no longer relevant to warfare, have changed their ethical and moral attitudes to brutality toward other human beings, towards animals.

No longer do we see, nor expect to see, people leaping over bulls, chariot racing, gladiatorial mortal combat, jousting or bear-baiting. Then there are games that do continue, often underground, but that should have (for obvious reasons) gone totally by now – cock fighting, dog fighting, bullfights, hunting (all kinds), fishing and horse racing.

And then there are some new “sports” that should never have started but, having done so, should be stopped – wood chopping, motor racing, boxing, cage fighting, rodeos, and shooting.

Why? Well because sports don’t merely reflect the values and ethics of their time and place, they help to define them, reinforce them. In the Colosseum, watching thousands of rare animals slaughtered, or deciding on the life or death of a defeated gladiator by the whim of the crowd, were not merely reflections of a brutal attitude to life in Rome, but helped to maintain that attitude. No longer seeing defenceless bears torn to death by dogs on the streets of Elizabethan London must have helped to begin the movement towards a gentler society.

And so it is with our modern bad sports. One or two of them certainly seemed like a good idea at the time – other times, other mores – but that time is no longer with us. Take wood-chopping for example. Began as a way for the 7 foot tall, well-muscled, bronzed axemen of the bush, to see who was the fastest at chopping down 500 year-old-trees. Crowds cheered at agricultural shows, as these representatives of all that was magnificent about the Australia of the past chopped away to see who could cut through their log the fastest. Heroes, home-grown heroes. But these heroes had helped to destroy forests all over Australia, had removed magnificent old growth trees, had driven once abundant species like red cedar effectively to near extinction. In 2013, with forests everywhere lost or degraded, and with climate change coming at us like a timber lorry on a narrow road, the time for seeing wood chopping as a celebration of Australia should be long behind us.

Same with motor racing. One hundred years ago, there was a brave new world of fast cars, and brave drivers pushing boundaries, advancing technology. Hurtling around the track without a care in the world except the next chequered flag. The fastest drivers of our youth (such as Juan Fangio and Stirling Moss in my case) heroes in the sense that top footballers and cricketers and tennis players (ah, those were the days) were. But now? Kidding, right? How many cars in the world, a billion? Two billion? All burning petrol, spewing out CO2. We could do without high performance cars driving mindlessly round and round race tracks symbolically and actually wasting fuel for no good reason.

Similarly, with seven billion people on the planet, with wars and rumours of wars, terrorism, ethnic hatreds, violence on the streets of big cities, do we really want to keep glorifying the idea that two men (and even women these days) brutally bashing each other to the cheers and jeers of a crowd until one is so badly injured (even dead sometimes) they cannot go on, is a sport and an entertainment? And, on a planet where species are going extinct at a faster and faster rate, and where climate change and habitat loss are rapidly worsening, why the hell are we hunting and fishing the species that are left? And why are we still encouraging an ethos that animals are there for the mere purpose of entertainment, to be tortured and killed on a whim, in sports such as horse racing, rodeos, and bull fighting? It certainly reduces the level of empathy for the natural world so necessary to get us through the rest of this dangerous century, but, considering only self human interest, leads to less empathy for other humans.

Which brings me to shooting. Put all of the above together and tell me that in the world of 2013 we should be treating and glamourising guns as sporting equipment and not deadly weapons whose use should be reduced to a minimum. There is nothing sporting about shooting. We shouldn’t be treating as normal the idea of possessing and using guns which kill tens of thousands of people every year and millions of animals.

So we need some new games? How about some based on firefighting, tree planting, rescuing sea turtles and seabirds, collecting litter, replanting sand dunes, conservation farming, solar-powered vehicles, public health activities?

Good sports, eh?

Gunna go now


An update. After two cycles of this new round of chemotherapy I have lost all my hair (which didn’t happen last year) and am getting nasty side effects on bone and muscle. I feel like my status has subtly changed, from being an ordinary person who just happened to be having cancer treatment, to being a fully unfledged cancer patient. Apparently though I still “look well” so that’s ok then.

Anyway, while the sainthood (aka oncology doctors and nurses) were working away, saving lives, making people more comfortable, CARING (in both senses); elsewhere in the world, arseholes with guns were slaughtering health workers in Pakistan and schoolchildren in America. And uber-arsehole, Wayne LaPierre, president of the National Rifle Arseholes, was proposing ever more guns to stop the gun carnage. Tell you what Wayne, there are no guns in oncology wards.

As always the rest of the world watches the behaviour of the American and Pakistan branches of the Taliban in stunned incomprehension. I am currently, briefly, reading the latest Janet Evanovich [look, I know, I know right. It's the literary equivalent of fairy floss- sugary, sickly and all the same. I can't imagine anyone, anywhere, having a complete set of Evanovich. But, in my defence, it is something my brain can currently cope with, and, more importantly, it was only $3 in a book remainder shop]. Something that struck me once more, especially in the week of Newtown, is that in this fairy floss book of “fun”, guns are on almost every page. Lovingly described, carried as if it was most natural thing in world, a part of every household, every outfit. Nowhere else in the world could such a treatment of guns in such a context be written. And nowhere else except in Pakistan could people not only slaughter women health workers, working hard to inject children to save them from the scourge of Polio, but proudly boast about having done so.

Anyway. Those are my thoughts on a Saturday morning. Since it is Saturnalia time, my next post may be seasons greetings, or I may finish my substantive post on guns first. Who can foretell the future (as the Mayans might say)? Gunna go now. See you later.

Political Gene-ius


I often think it’s comical
How Nature always does contrive 
That every boy and every gal,
That’s born into the world alive,
Is either a little Liberal,
Or else a little Conservative!
(WS Gilbert “Iolanthe”)

When I, aged 30, first met my Father we didn’t discuss cricket, and I have no idea whether he was a fan or not. But then I had no idea he was a Shakespeare fan until I learned he had somehow carried a volume of the Collected Works in his army kitbag all through the Middle East and New Guinea in World War 2, so perhaps he did love cricket.

My grandfather (yes, the one in the photo top right) certainly did play, and love, cricket, and was, apparently, a very handy fast bowler, even up to being in his Forties. I once proudly owned, and wore, his cricket cap from when he played in the County Durham competition, 100 years ago, but lost it in circumstances which remain painful.

He died not long after I turned seven. Before I was old enough to seriously appreciate cricket, and long before television, let alone direct tv broadcasts of Test Matches, came to Perth. Cricket could be followed, from England, on the radio in the early 1950s, and that was that. One of my many regrets about his early death was never being able to watch cricket with him. Both of us would have relished the experience.

But with no direct transmission from either father or grandfather, how did I get my love of cricket?

What used to be called the “lower vertebrates”, fish, amphibians, reptiles, generally speaking, fertilise eggs, lay them somewhere appropriate, and then piss off. Consequently the young, when born, are equipped to completely fend for themselves. All of their behaviour patterns are encoded in their DNA, and on hatching they simply seek shelter, food, and eventually mates in ways that were innate, not learned. [It's worth noting though that some species in all these groups have separately evolved live births, and others, after laying eggs, guard them until hatching, and then guard the young for a while. In such species it is possible the young do learn some behaviour associated with, say, feeding, from the male or female parent].

The “higher vertebrates”, birds and mammals, show considerable variation. All the birds (and three of the mammals) lay eggs of course. But there are some, the cuckoo species, that dump their eggs into the nests of other species to raise. There are some, all ground living types (emus, chickens, ducks etc), who have “precocial” young, with down cover, born ready to move off with their mother. Most others have young born naked and totally helpless, needing total care in nest from parents until their feathers develop and they can fly (and even then care continues). They therefore have a mixture of innate behaviours and learned (or at least modified) behaviours

Mammals also vary. Some, notably the herd/flock species, are up and moving within a few hours of birth and following the mother in the rest of the mob. Others are born completely helpless, and remain so for long periods, weeks, months, even years. The ones who develop quickly have less chance (and need) to learn from parents (though they will learn a great deal), those (notably the apes, including us, learn a great deal from the parents and have fewer purely innate components (though far more than we realise).

Well, in brief, we are into the nitty gritty of the “nature-nurture” debate – what part of a species, say Homo sapiens sapiens, behaviours are genetic, inherited, what part are learnt? Not simple, as the evolutionary history above shows. Certainly there are fundamental things – eating, drinking, danger, comfort, athleticism – that are strongly genetically based. Then there are superficial things – religion, taste in music and art, social unit structures, political beliefs, and, yes, sport preferences – that are strongly based on the context in which you are raised.

But, on the one hand the genetic ones are modified by upbringing (eg particular food preferences, response to dangers, how fit you are), and on the other, even some of the superficial socio-culturally-based ones have some genetic basis it has been found. Studies of twins raised separately for example show some tendency for them to be similar in their strength of religious belief (though the form strictly related to household raised in). Musical abilities are well-known to often “run in families”. And more recently (for example) studies show tendency towards respectively right and left-wing political beliefs have some genetic component (though again, the particular form this might take being related to up-bringing). Wonder if the otherwise inexplicable gun love in the US is part of this inheritance?

Interestingly, though not surprisingly perhaps, both the religious and political tendencies are related to serotonin production and the brain’s response, and since music also causes serotonin reactions, it may well be that is also related to the abilities of, say, the sons of JS Bach.

Anyway, all of that may help to explain (though of course there would be many other factors), why a religious believer might suddenly appear from an atheist household, or a fervent Young Republican from a Democratic one, or a genius musician from a non-musical family. May also explain why musical ability is rare, why the irrational belief in religion persists to damage societies, and why roughly half of the voters in most countries keep voting for conservative parties that will damage their interests.

Oh, and it might just explain why I am watching a cricket match on tv while I write this! There being more things in heaven an earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy, or made a fault in our stars.

A Lota Spam


Every morning when I check my blog the first job is to delete the masses of spam “comments”, empty, meaningless phrases, that have accumulated in just a few hours and vastly outnumber genuine comments. The spammers are trying to sell me viagra, ugg boots, fake watches, handbags, and some are just full of inexplicable computer garbage aimed at damaging your computer. Hard to imagine anyone clicking on any of them even if they did get past the spam filter, but they are sent out in their millions by people unconcerned about the damage they could do to the lives of people fooled into clicking.

Same when checking my email inbox. Full of Nigerian bank accounts, United Nations’ lottery wins, unclaimed parcels, all promising untold riches if only I send my bank account details. Scattered in between are demands that I sort out problems with my bank, tax, web site, just click here and all your problems will disappear. Along with your money.

Different kind of spam spewing out of radios these days. Trash talk pretending to be entertainment. Same with newspapers hacking into the phones of people suffering some tragedy. No concern again for the damage done to the people treated badly. One a few days ago a couple of Australian radio presenters rang the London hospital where Kate Middleton was being treated.  The purpose, it has been forgotten in what followed, was to try to obtain confidential information about the patient, her treatment, and condition. To hell with her privacy.

They succeeded in getting through, fooling two nurses, being given the information. What a hoot eh? Except that one of the poor nurses concerned appears to have been so affected she committed she committed suicide. Uproar. Much defence of the radio presenters, who it was said, mainly by other media people, “couldn’t have predicted such a terrible outcome”. True enough, but the original intent was bad. And unintended consequences often flow from using people’s lives for entertainment.

Finally, as if influenced by the flood of spam all around them, political discourse has been turned into spam. Meaningless three word slogans, empty speeches, abusive descriptions of opponents, lies about policy, empty publicity stunts. Discourse full of sound and fury, signifying nothing (did Shakespeare anticipate the coming of an age of spam?). Discourse which must have Eisenhower and Kennedy, Churchill and Wilson, Menzies and Curtin, all spinning away in their graves.

And mindless as it is, this political spam also has consequences. Makes good policy development impossible. Forces good people out of politics. Gets rid of any thought about politics being about intellect and ideas. Intended consequences, for some, it seems.

We seem to be living in, drowning in, an age of spam. And unfortunately some of it can’t be just deleted with the click of a mouse button.

On the way to the forum


A funny thing happened after an election last Saturday in a little town called Canberra not a million miles from Watermelon Headquarters. It’s only a little local political curiosity, perhaps, but it may, if I stretch a point, have some resonance elsewhere.

The leader of the local conservatives, out of power for some years, made an astonishing speech on election night claiming “victory”. He hadn’t actually won, you understand, no one had. Trends were clear, general features of the final result reasonably obvious, but he hadn’t “won” (and nor had anyone else!). But what he was saying was that there had been a “swing” towards his party, and that, therefore (the logic was a little fuzzy) he had won the election because a swing meant that the public were unhappy with the previous government (a coalition of Labor and Greens) and so wanted him.

Now this concept, that you don’t have to win a majority of seats (the Westminster system for several hundred years) to become a government, merely get more votes and seats than you got last time was stunning in its audacity, and if applied retrospectively would considerably alter the course of history in most countries. But it was so silly that I kept expecting the room in which he was speaking to erupt into laughter “yes, good one Zed, what a joker you are”.

But the very next day the federal leader of the conservatives (The “Liberal” Party, for historical reasons irrelevant for decades) joined in. Yes indeed, he suggested, good old Zed had a “moral claim” to be the next government. It was all a bit like losing a game of tennis, and later claiming that the rules were now changed and the person who hit the net the most was the winner; or a game of cricket where you claimed that padding the ball away was really worth six runs.

What both of them were intent on doing was bullying The Greens, obviously about to hold the balance of power again, into backing the conservatives, diametrically opposed politically to Greens, instead of Labor again, much more closely allied politically. The point of these statements was also, more importantly, to massage the media narrative, and through that the public expectations.

I was reminded of the 2000 US Presidential election where the Republican-friendly media prematurely declared Bush the winner in Ohio, another narrative massage, but then turned the Florida post-election legal battle into one where the people stealing the election were the good guys, and those appealing for justice and democracy were the bad guys ( representing “Sore-Loserman”). Australian conservatives have learnt a lot from Republicans, and this election night grab for power in Canberra was another example of Rovian tactics in action.

It is inconceivable that it will work of course, but even if it doesn’t it leaves behind a sense of injustice, even perhaps unlawfulness, if the media really come to the party. Helps to delegitimise the government in the same way Mr Abbott did after the 2010 election faced with a similar scenario. In fact another motive for him may well be to add support to his view he was “robbed” in 2010 by “that woman”.

Once upon a time it seemed that both sides of politics played by the rules. Fought an election hard, but then accepted the verdict of the people even in close contexts. Anything else would not be cricket. The outcome would affect the country economically, philosophically, culturally, but the ebb and flow of election results would balance all that out eventually over the years.

These days big money is involved. If you can get a conservative party into power then the government will be open to business. All kinds of restrictions will be scrapped, deals done, wars, quite possibly, started, mines opened, forests cleared, workplace wages and conditions substantially reduced. Big money for the corporations. And big money for the conservative politicians after they leave politics – seats on Boards, consultancies, media roles, and so on.

So now anything goes. War by other means. War to install conservative governments and reap the spoils of office.

Got a feeling we ain’t seen nothing yet.

The background. The Australian Capital Territory (ie the land on which Canberra, Australia’s capital, sits, and surrounding areas) with a population of around 370,000, gained self-government in 1988. It had previously been administered by a federal minister and department. Its parliament (the Assembly) currently has 17 elected members. There is a fixed term of office, with elections every four years, and a “Hare-Clark” electoral system, giving it, with Tasmania, the fairest election results in the country. Fairest in the sense of parties being represented in parliament proportional, as closely as possible, to their percentage of votes.

I won’t go into the considerable detail here. Just note that instead of 17 electorates, one per member, there are just three, two of which have five members and a larger one seven. Within each electorate, to simplify, each party gets a number of members proportional to its total vote (bearing in mind the limitation that members can’t be part people). The system is about as fair as it could be, breaking the stranglehold the two major parties normally have. As a result the ACT Assembly very rarely sees one party with a majority of seats, and negotiations and agreements have to be made with third parties (these days usually The Greens) or Independents.