Category Archives: Politics

Perspective needed: one death in many

 

On Friday 9 April 2021, a certain gentleman died. His full name/title was:

His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth, Baron Greenwich, Royal Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Extra Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Member of the Order of Merit, Grand Master and First and Principal Knight Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Knight of the Order of Australia, Additional Member of the Order of New Zealand, Extra Companion of the Queen’s Service Order, Royal Chief of the Order of Logohu, Extraordinary Companion of the Order of Canada, Extraordinary Commander of the Order of Military Merit, Lord of Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council, Privy Councillor of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada, Personal Aide-de-Camp to Her Majesty, Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom.

That’s 133 words. In the time it takes you to read it, at least 100 people will have died somewhere in the world. For the average daily death toll around the globe is 150,000 people. How many of their names will we know? How many of them will attract the media feeding frenzy that the passing of certain 99-year-old gentleman did?

How much media or other scrutiny will fall on the 800+ women who died on that very same day from what the World Health Organization describes as “preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth”? How many pub conversations about that particular gentleman’s legacy will pause to consider that in high-income countries a woman’s lifetime risk of maternal death is one in 540; in low-income countries it is one in 45?

We don’t know exactly what the 99-year-old gentleman expired from, though old age is clearly a suspect. We do know he suffered heart problems. That puts him in strong company – nearly one third of the other 149,999 deaths on 9 April resulted from cardiovascular disease.

The gentleman’s family, especially his wife—a woman of some renown—will mourn him deeply. That is as unremarkable. Will their sorrow be any more heartfelt, any more profound, than that of all the other wives, husbands, children, mothers, fathers, siblings, friends, companions who lost a loved one on Friday 9 April 2021?

 

Scomo banks on denial

PM:     Did you do it?

MINISTER 1:     No I did not!

PM:     Atta boy, but there’s room for improvement. Let’s try again.

Do you do it?

MINISTER 1:     I definitely did not.

PM:     Only definitely? Can’t you do better than that?

MINISTER [taking a deep breath]:     I absolutely, categorically deny I had anything to do with it.

PM:     That’s more like it! Take a break and we’ll polish it later.

MINISTER 1:     Um, sorry PM, what was I denying?

PM:     Come on, I explained it all in Cabinet! I want blanket denials from every minister. We’re bound to need them so I’m stockpiling.

MINISTER [smiles broadly]:     You’re a thinker Scotty. That’s why we made you PM.

PM:     Send in the next one, will you?

MINSTER 1:     Sure thing.

PM:     Right. Did you do it?

MINISTER 2:     I am offended to the core that you could even ask that question. Never in a month of Sundays would I ever contemplate action so vile in spirit and horrendous in application that it would leave decent people everywhere shuddering with revulsion. If you persist with that malicious line of enquiry I will not hesitate to be very upset to the point that I might cry.

PM [laughs]:     You’ve been practicing! Great work, though you might need to look at the word count. A bit long for a 30 second grab.

Send in the next one will you?

MINISTER 2:     You got it, El Scotto Supremo.

PM:     Okay, you know the drill. I explained it before.

MINISTER 3:    Did you now?

PM:     Yes, I did. Oh, bugger, you got me. I answered in the affirmative.

MINISTER 3:     I didn’t mean to embarrass you PM, just to show that we can all slip up.

PM:     I know, I know, a good lesson too. Forgot my own rule: always deny until it’s certain the media are all at the pub.

MINISTER 3:    Or move to hypotheticals. “You have just asked me if I assaulted that woman. I have never responded to hypotheticals and don’t intend to start now.”

PM:     Yeah, that’s a great line. We can thank Christian for that one. He’s the gold standard.

MINISTER 3:    Just one thing though. What will we do about Julie Bishop?

PM:      That flirtatious sow. You saw what she said? That we should actually know the substance of allegations before we deny them. Outrageous, pedantic nonsense. It’ll undermine our whole system of open government.

MINISTER 3:     That’s what happens when you get the wrong lawyers in Parliament.

PM:     Or the wrong women.

 

 

Palace Letters – the Queen’s Hard Quiz

We interrupt this repeat broadcast of the 2019 Sydney to Hobart yacht race to bring you exclusive coverage of the Queen’s preparation for her New Year appearance on Hard Quiz, hosted (how could anyone forget?!) by Gold Logie winner, Tom Gleeson.

A courtier is putting the Queen through her paces on her special subject:

How One definitely knew nothing  whatsoever about the plot to sack Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and any suggestions otherwise will be regarded as treasonous slurs, prompting aforementioned One to pursue maximum redress through legal channels.

COURTIER:    May it please Your Majesty to start?

QUEEN:         Yes, Thomas, please be as frank as you dare.

COURTIER:    Thank you Ma’am, though if I may beg your indulgence I will observe in passing that my name is other than Thomas.

QUEEN:         So many years, so many faces, so many names, all so bothersome. Please clarify the situation at once.

COURTIER:    The name of the individual bent before you, Ma’am, is Alexander.

QUEEN:         Are your new?

COURTIER:    Yes, Ma’am, I was formerly His Excellency the High Commissioner of the Commonwealth of Australia to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

QUEEN:         One forgets so easily those who One has no call to remember.

COURTIER:    Indeed so, Your Majesty. Perhaps we best continue.

QUEEN:         One consents.

COURTIER:    Begging your further indulgence, Ma’am, may I point out that the special subject Your Majesty has nominated is of such extensiveness in the nature of its description that it may not actually leave sufficient time for meaningful answers.

QUEEN:         That, Alexander, is precisely the point.

COURTIER:    Yes, Ma’am, of course, Ma’am, a wise strategy indeed.

QUEEN:         One does not require grovelling compliments from One’s staff, Alexander. Now get to the questions, so One may practice not answering them.

COURTIER:    Of course, Ma’am, of course. True or false:

Her Majesty had no inkling that Sir John Kerr was planning to sack a democratically elected Prime Minister?

QUEEN:         Such impertinence. Next question.

COURTIER:    Without delay, Ma’am.

Is there a smoking gun?

QUEEN:         Of course. Many of them in fact after the Royals have been out in the fresh air blasting away at pheasants and grouse and other wonders of nature.

COURTIER:    Brilliant deflection, Ma’am. Now, multiple choice:

When did Her Majesty first learn that Prime Minister Whitlam had been replaced. Was it—

QUEEN:         One so looks forward to clarifying this, once and forever. It was 1977. One’s Silver Jubilee. With One’s consort occasionally by One’s side but mostly trailing rearward, One visited Awstralya. One could not help but observe that the Prime Minister looked quite different to the one One encountered on an earlier visitation. Only when One queried One’s staff did One learn they had forgotten to advise One of the change. Very sheepish they were. One assured them that such a trivial matter hardly required One’s attention.

COURTIER:    Multiple choice again, Your Majesty:

When Sir John Kerr—

QUEEN:         Oh, him again.

COURTIER:    If I may, Your Majesty.

QUEEN:         Proceed.

COURTIER:    When Sir John Kerr sacked Prime Minister Whitlam for being a Labor Prime Minister—

QUEEN:         Oh, so that was the reason! One always thought it had something to do with the constitution. Sir John’s was never very good; drank far too much poor man, stress of the job, that sort of thing.

COURTIER:    If I may continue, Your Majesty;

What were Sir John’s stated reasons:

  1. Your Majesty had ordered abovementioned dismissal
  2. Sir John could not recall why he had done it
  3. Sir John could not recall when he had done it
  4. Sir John could not recall if, in fact, he had done it at all.

QUEEN:         Tricky question this one. One thinks it was 2) but cannot be certain. Could One possibly phone a friend? Well, acquaintance actually, One does not really have friends in One’s exalted position.

COURTIER:    With your Majesty’s permission I will contact Mr Gleeson and ensure a phone is readily to hand on the great occasion. May it please Your Majesty to be informed that I would be delighted to fulfil the role of “acquaintance”.

QUEEN:         Good boy, Alex, it seems you can play at almost anything!

COUTIER:      Begging your indulgence yet again, Your Majesty, may I offer a final thought.

QUEEN:         If you must.

COURTIER:    Play hard!

QUEEN:         I always have. Remember Diana.

 

From a special correspondent

A senior Chinese official has finally revealed the real basis for the country’s trade war with Australia.

 

The official, identified only as SO, said, “Even by the standards we’ve come to expect”,  Australian commentary to date had demonstrated a “shocking ignorance”.

“Portraying the trade management measures we’ve taken as retaliation for Australian criticism of vital land reclamation programs in our maritime domains, or as a response to Australia’s childish behaviour over the origins of Covid-19 is simply absurd. In reality, it all comes down to a question of understanding customer needs and being truthful.”

Pointing to the bottles of Australian wine arrayed on the table in front of her, SO continued. “Take wine, and I do a lot. White wine is meant to be just that. So listen to this.” She picked up a bottle of white wine and read aloud: “Combining honeysuckle yellows, vanilla, peach-kernel and chicken stock, the dry yet buttery characteristics of this blend are sure to delight any palette.”

Her faced flushed with anger, SO just managed to go on: “When we pay over the odds for so-called white wine, which we certainly do now that we’ve imposed a 200 per cent tariff, we don’t expect to be quaffing chicken stock. And just how are our poor customs officials expected to categorise such a product: fruit, dairy, manufactured foodstuff or what?

“The reds are just as bad”, SO continued. She reached for a bottle. “Black current, pepper, grassiness! Just what are they putting into it?”  Staring at the label, she spat, “Yellow tail? That’s a fish, and not a very good eating one at that!

“I could on on”, SO went on, picking up another bottle: “A beautiful purplish hue with a long, silky finish.

We invented silk”, she snapped, “I’m wearing it right now, then lo and behold it turns up in Australian wine!

“Until Australians can tell the difference between red, white, yellow, purple and so on, no Australian wine will enter the country, except the ones I like to drink with my colleagues after a hard day in the office.”

Asked about the ban on Australian lobsters, SO momentarily looked awkward. She took a deep breath before answering. “Actually, we have nothing against Australian lobsters. We love the way they switch instantly to red with the simple addition of boiling water. It was just a typo in the instructions. We actually meant mobsters. We get quite a few of them from Australia too.”

Shaking her head, SO added, “If only other countries would own up to their mistakes as openly as we do.”

“Now to coal,” she continued, sounding ominous. “It presents us with a different problem. We’re sick and tired of black smoke. Quite frankly,  it’s boring us to tears. Why can’t we have some green smoke, my favourite colour incidentally, or maybe orange, though that colour is a bit on the nose at the moment. Red would make a nice, patriotic, change. Is it too much to ask that Australian exporters are sensitive to their customers’ preferences?”

At this point I plucked up courage and asked, “It seems there’s a straightforward explanation for the current tensions, so why won’t you talk to the Australian Trade Minister? He’s been trying to phone you for weeks.”

“Has he?” SO responded with what could have been mistaken for a genuine surprise. “He must be using one of those inferior western mobiles. I’ll send him one of ours. All he has to do is phone me on the latest model Great Call and I promise you he’ll get through in a flash.”

 

 

 

Will we ever be satisfied with less?

I can’t imagine the old normal returning unaltered after COVID-19 but worry that the rush towards a new normal will entail too much focus on growth and profits and not enough on caring for the vulnerable and the environment. If that happens, we will have squandered an opportunity to reset how we value health, work and leisure.

Anthropologist James Suzman has written a history of work that gives us plenty to consider as we navigate our way out of the pandemic towards that new normal. Here’s my review (which first appeared in The Weekend Australian 19-20 September) of Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, published by Bloomsbury.

Why, in an era of unprecedented abundance, are we preoccupied with scarcity and therefore aspire to more and more growth? Anthropologist Suzman employs the second law of thermodynamics, also known as the law of entropy, to answer this question. His idea is that entropy – the energy not available to do useful work, like the steam that escapes from an engine – ‘unpicks whatever order the universe creates’. Entropy, Suzman argues, has ‘driven humans to direct energy surplus into something purposeful’. This is the book’s leitmotif but repetition does not make the concept easier to grasp. Nevertheless, most of this history of work is accessible and thought-provoking.

To explain contemporary attitudes to work, Suzman traces the convergence of the way humans use energy with our evolutionary and cultural history. After the hunter-gatherers, whom Suzman knows well from his work with the Ju/’hoansi bushmen of eastern Namibia, came mastery of fire. This began a process of capturing energy that has changed the way people live, produce and value time. I found the chapters about early human endeavour the most interesting and enlightening. They lead to the proposition that, after fire, farming (which triggered population growth) and then the exploitation of fossil fuels in the Industrial Revolution have had dramatic effects on work, society and the climate.

What Suzman admires about the Ju/’hoansi is their satisfaction with just the resources available to nourish them. He appreciates their bewilderment at the notion of scarcity, which now drives the pursuit of growth in modern economies, although he also acknowledges that, for subsistence farming societies, scarcity was often a matter of life and death. His critique is that when ‘hardly any of us now produce our own food, … the sanctification of scarcity still underwrite[s] how we organise our economic life’.

Suzman shifts across centuries as he tells the story of how we spend our time. He illustrates his points with references to individuals, some famous, some anonymous, some like Thadeus, an urban dweller on the outskirts of Windhoek, Namibia. Thadeus’s story illustrates an important development: increased urbanisation, with 2008 a landmark year when more people lived in cities than in the countryside for the first time in human history. But the story of cities goes way back, to the communities built by termites and to ancient Rome where the first guilds were established.

The book is a feat of synthesis: Suzman draws on anthropology, archaeology, economic history and philosophy. He humanises many of the thinkers he quotes, offering snippets about their lives that illuminate or just entertain. For example, he tells us that Sir John Lubbock, the person behind introducing the bank holiday to encourage work-life balance, also tried to teach his poodle, Van, how to read. One person Suzman does not mention, strangely, is Thomas Piketty, the French economist whose work on the concentration of wealth and rising inequality, must have influenced Suzman’s analysis.

When he reaches the recent past and discusses the rise of the consumer society and then the dominance of services, Suzman’s opinions and prejudices rather than scholarly insights come to the fore. He hates management consultants and is scathing about bloated university bureaucracies. In the latter case, his criticism is not accompanied by a discussion about the trend towards demand for higher skills and mass tertiary education. This change in perspective raises the question as to when Suzman’s history of work should have stopped? I suggest in the 1980s when his lived experiences fog up the historical lens.

Most of the contemporary analysis is in Western countries, though Suzman does talk about the Japanese phenomenon of ‘karoshi ’: death by overwork. He also mentions those whose health can be affected by boredom at work, and workaholics. Suzman strikes me as one of these, given the enormous breadth of his canvas and his forensic search for interesting anecdotes. He is, however, ambivalent about ambition as well as affluence. Durkheim’s idea of anomie, a ‘malady of infinite aspiration’, caused by people’s sense of dislocation during the Industrial Revolution, is, Suzman fears, becoming a permanent condition of the modern age.

This has resulted in the blurring of work and leisure, with people finding it more and more difficult to be idle. It is a shame Suzman did not investigate further the consequences of this blurring. But his real omission is inadequate discussion about the individual and social effects of unemployment in modern economies, especially in the time of COVID (which he does mention) when work is proving to be an important psychological as well as economic prop. Indeed, the role of work in building social capital and self-esteem deserved greater attention in this history.

Suzman is now the director of Anthropos Ltd, a think tank that applies anthropological methods to solving contemporary social and economic problems. Work does not provide solutions. We still do not know how to reach the Keynesian dream of valuing ends above means and preferring the good to the useful. Nevertheless, this survey of human endeavour gives us plenty to think about as we navigate the post-COVID fourth industrial revolution and try to make better work for all, with less waste, less carbon and more leisure.

 

Trapped in the bubble – by Peter Rodgers

This play was first performed at Melting Pot Theatre, Bundanoon, in
July 2020, with Miranda Lean playing Advisor 2 and winning a best actor award.

 

Cast: Minister (M); Adviser One (A1); Adviser Two (A2)
[Lights up]
[Parliament House, the Minister’s outer office, the Minister is offstage]
[A1 and A2 are onstage, A1 standing, phone in hand: A2 is seated at a desk]
M  [yelling, angry, frustrated]
Get in here someone! Now! Can’t find the bloody thing anywhere.
A1  [looks hard at A2; points to the Minister’s office]  Your turn.
A2  But I have my life ahead of me.
A1  You won’t if you don’t go.
A2  I won’t if I do go, by the sound of that.
A1  Come on. It’s a learning journey.
A2  I’m not sure I want to find out.
A1  It’s high time you earned all that money we pay you.
A2  Oh, alright.
[A2 stands, takes a deep breath and exits; loud, angry, unintelligible yelling offstage; A2 rushes back onstage]
A2  You might have warned me!
A1  You have to experience it sometime.
A2  I didn’t sign up for this.
A1  So what did you sign up for?
A2  [dreamily]  To … to do good. To make the world a better place. To always put others first and never play the games that go on around here.
A1  [hand on head]   Oh no, another idealist! What is wrong with the education system these days?
A2  Why are you so cynical? Shouldn’t we aim high?
A1  Now let me tell you a few hard—  [A1 is interrupted by more yelling]
M  Where is that damned thing? I’m surrounded by idiots!
A2  Shouldn’t we help her look?
A1  Nah. It’s hardly the first time she’s lost something. One of the first things to go were her principles. Happens to them all.
A2  I don’t believe you. I just don’t believe you. There’s got to be goodness in some of those we work with. Maybe, many of them.
A1  [shakes head in wonder]  What a romantic you are. Nice in a way. But sad.
Do you know that the basement is chock-a-block with discarded principles. They truck them offsite these days.
A2  [optimistically]  To recycle them?
A1 To take them to the tip, dummy.
[more unintelligible yelling from the Minister’s office]
A2  [points to the Minister’s office, plaintive]  Was she always like this?
A1  Who knows? Who cares? She’s on the inside looking out. Best place to be. That’s where I want to end up. And she’s had a bit of fun along the way. I can tell you that.
A2  What do you mean?
A1  Well, it’s Australia. The 21st century. In the wee small hours, everyone needs a special sort of comfort.
A2 [shocked]  What about the code-of-conduct? The Barnaby Principle?
A1  Oh dear me. Another one who hasn’t read the fine print.
[speaks slowly, carefully] Ministers-aren’t-allowed-to-have … liaisons … with-their-staff.  [smiles, speaks normally again] Don’t you just love that word? Liaison.
But there’s nothing to stop staff having liaisons with ministers.
A2  That’s appalling. Hypocrisy of the highest order. We’re supposed to be setting an example.
A1  And we are. In creative implementation.
A2  Now you sound like a lawyer.
A1  Very kind of you to say so.
A2  I feel sick.
A1  Maybe you’re not really cut out for this life. Be honest though, wouldn’t you just love to be in there? The warm, tingly feeling that power gives you. The fact that you can yell at others without any justification whatsoever.
A2  That’s what my children are for.
A1  Ha ha! Let me give you a bit of advice. Love the bubble – or leave it.
A2  I’ve got a better solution. I’ll start my own party.
A1  Oh no, not the dreaded Third Way.
A2  I can see it now. The crowds gazing expectantly.  Each and every person looking to me, and me alone, to salve their wounds, to lift their spirits, to offer them hope for the future.
A1  And just how will you do that?
A2  By the power of my words. All you ever come up with is cliché.
A1  They’re very useful around here. They have a soothing effect on ministers, and everyone. Helps them to forget.
A2  Amnesia is no substitute for action. I offer a vision.
A1  If you say so. Go on then, give us a taste.
A2  Well, it’s a bit off-the-cuff, but here goes.
[takes a deep breath, confident]
As Bismarck once said, it’s better never to watch laws or sausages being made. So, at the outset, let me be absolutely open and frank for my message is clear and simple. The fact of the matter is we inherited the current deplorable situation from our predecessors but the only thing we have to fear is fear itself as honesty is the best policy and money isn’t everything. Besides, it doesn’t grow on trees. Nonetheless, we’re spending more dollars in real terms – whatever that means – than any other government in the history of the world and when it’s all said and done and the cows come home to roost …
[frowns, rubs chin]
Aw … something went wrong there. It’s only a first draft though.
[The Minister appears around the corner; A2 does not see her]
[The Minister gives A1 the thumbs up then disappears again]
A1  Go on, go on. You’re doing really well.
A2  So my friends, at the end of the day, the ball’s in our court. We’ll go over the top at first light determined to play hard but fair, to make the ultimate sacrifice if need be, so that in the fullness of time and going forward we will maximise mutually beneficial outcomes for all those deserving to share in the riches of this great nation. Can we do it? The answer is inspiring. Say it with me. In just three words.
A1/A2   [looking at each other, they speak in unison, enthusiastic]
Can we do it? Yes we can!
A1  Very impressive. Very. You’re a natural. Bit of a surprise really.
What I like so much is the freshness of the ideas and the originality and the vigour of the language. You’ve definitely got something. Just give me a moment, will you.  [disappears offstage briefly and returns]  I hope you’ll think this is good news.
A2  Try me.
A1  [points to the Minister’s office] She liked what she heard. Liked it a lot. Was very complimentary. She wants you to become her strategic communications adviser. Big pay rise, of course.
A2  That’s definitely good news. But what about you?
A1  No need to worry about me. I’m her life coach, for life.
A2  Well … it’s a very tempting offer. I need to be clear, though. I’m not thinking of myself.  [shakes head, emphatic]  Not for a single moment.
A1  Of course not. Perish the thought.  [rubs hands together]  Well, that’s all settled. Why don’t we go and have a celebratory drink with the Minister?
A2  [hesitant]  But what about the thing she lost? It sounded quite important.
A1  Forget it. You can’t hold ministers accountable for anything they did or said five minutes ago. The place would grind to a halt.
A2  Mmm … am I doing the right or the wrong thing? I don’t know. I really don’t know.
A1  Relax … after a while you won’t know the difference.
A2  Doesn’t that bother you?
A1  Did for a while. But I grew out of it. We all do. Come on! Can’t keep the Minister waiting.
A2  I suppose what I’m doing is in the national interest.
A1  Of course it is.
A2 Well, then, lead the way!
[they exit, lights down]

© Peter Rodgers 2020

Australia Day: occasion for collective mourning

In early January, the leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese, suggested the first sitting day of Federal Parliament for 2020 be devoted to marking the unprecedented bushfire crisis. That got me thinking about Australia Day.

Why not make it a day of mourning, not just for Indigenous Australians as it explicitly became on 26 January 1938 but for all those heartbroken by the devastation that has swept our land.

26 January 1938 marked the 150th anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet in Australia. On that day a group of Aboriginal men and women gathered at Australian Hall in Sydney. They moved this resolution:

“WE, representing THE ABORIGINES OF AUSTRALIA, assembled in conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th Anniversary of the Whiteman’s seizure of our country, HEREBY MAKE PROTEST against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years, AND WE APPEAL to the Australian nation of today to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, we ask for a new policy which will raise our people TO FULL CITIZEN STATUS and EQUALITY WITHIN THE COMMUNITY.”

After the phrase ‘callous treatment of our people’, that resolution might have carried the words ‘negligent care of our country’. In 2019/2020, that negligence has had horrific consequences.

White people have not been good at heeding advice about the treatment of this ancient land and its first peoples. Before he embarked on the Endeavour expedition in 1768, James Cook, whose arrival on Australia’s east coat 250 years ago will be widely commemorated this year, received a set of ‘hints’ from the president of The Royal Society, James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton. Lord Morton exhorted Cook to remind the crew it was their moral responsibility to do no harm to the Indigenous inhabitants and to respect Indigenous land occupation. The British Admiralty also instructed Cook only to take possession of advantageous positions with the ‘Consent of the Natives’. Cook proceeded without any such consent.

Kevin Tolhurst, whose name became so familiar during the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, has pointed out that, after 57 formal public inquiries, reviews and royal commissions related to bushfires and fire management since 1939, we have also had plenty of advice about bushfire management. The problem lies more with implementing the findings from these reviews. One lesson from the Black Saturday tragedy is that ‘stay and defend’ is often not the best course of action. The ‘leave and live’ option has saved lives this bushfire season.

Other recommendations have not been adequately followed up. In 2012, the Council of Australian Governments signed off on a national policy, which listed 14 national goals. One of those was to ‘further integrate traditional burning practices and fire regimes with current practices and technologies to enhance bushfire mitigation and management in Australian landscapes’. This goal recognised the benefits of widespread, low-intensity, patchy fires across the landscape as a way to build resilience to climate extremes.

Francesca M. Beddie 

Wanted: politicians who inspire and creative public policy

I watched Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake again recently. Again, I cried. A sick bloke with talent and decency ends up dead before he can argue his case to be treated not as a client, customer, service user or national insurance number but as a citizen, no more no less. Surely our citizens can expect more from governments and public servants than mindless process and indifference. In the age of automation ought not compassion be precious? In the age of big data, shouldn’t it be easier to tailor public services to the individuals who pay, or have paid, taxes?

Worrying about this reminded me of an exchange I had with Donald Horne in 1996. Our letters were prompted by an allegation in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail that the historian Manning Clark had acted as a covert ‘agent of influence’ on behalf of the Soviet Union. There was no evidence to back the claims: fake news is not new. It was also the time of the first rise of Hansonism. I was angry that the Howard government was not standing up against ignorant racism and intolerance. Horne wrote back:

I keep having this fear that Australia (well – not Australia, but some bits of its public culture) will suddenly go mad, as the hidden rises to the surface – without the appropriate denunciations from the guardians.

Today, Horne might have concluded that the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

What has caused the malaise in our polity and how we might do things differently is the subject of a two-part essay published in Pearls and Irritations.

Why we have diplomatic language

For many years I have introduced new entrants to the diplomatic service to the archaic language of third person notes or notes verbales. Some are enchanted by the trappings of their new profession; others scornful of the use of phrases like:

‘avails itself of this opportunity to renew the assurances of its highest consideration’.

I explain this usage as part of the toolbox of diplomacy which, along with protocol, can serve to contain heated emotion and temper hostilities. These have been the tasks of diplomats before and since the French coined such elaborate phrases centuries ago.

Now, when the talk is of a new Cold War, Australia’s Foreign Minister – some people call her our chief diplomat – prefers the TV cameras to the conventions devised to maintain lines of communication even during times of heightened tension. On 28 March she gave the Russian Ambassador what the media calls her ‘death stare’. Logvinov seemed to take this in his stride. He has even appeared to relish his on-screen performances.

This tit for tat isn’t over. Russia’s Foreign Minister had already reacted to the expulsions by Western governments of Russian diplomats by saying that Moscow will not tolerate Western countries’ crassness. ‘Rest assured, we will respond’, Lavrov told the Russian news agency, TASS. ‘The reason is that no one would like to tolerate such obnoxiousness and we won’t either.’

These slanging matches are bad for international relations. If we start to call people out before we have the facts* and prefer to conduct the business of foreign policy in the public glare, we abandon the professional foundations from which to prosecute for peace not war. That’s serious stuff.

*For more on what we do or don’t yet know about the Skripal attack, see http://johnmenadue.com/scott-burchill-on-the-russian-gas-attack/

and

https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/unlikely-that-vladimir-putin-behind-skripal-poisoning-1.3425736 

Image: the Russian ambassador, Grigory Logvinov, with the foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian

What do we mean by Australia Day?

All the talk about Australia Day – what it symbolises, for whom and when we should celebrate – prompted me to delve into the history of the date, which has long been contentious. The Conversation website has run a series.  And Honest History has published various articles.  My post for the Professional Historians Association of NSW and ACT argues that, before we lock in the date, we need to decide what we want our national day to commemorate: the arrival of the British, invasion, sovereignty, citizenship, summer? Here it is:

What the history of Australia Day can tell us about the date