March 10, 2008
CAN GRANT HACKETT?: Apr 05, AU Edition
CAN GRANT HACKETT?
Fully recovered from the health woes that plagued him during last year’s Olympics, and now breathing down the neck of the world’s fastest man, Grant Hackett speaks to JENI PAYNE about motivation in the pool, the challenges ahead of him and the people this sporting icon most admires
A chronic chest infection would have most of us under the covers, sipping lemony drinks, begging leave of work and looking for sympathy. But Grant Hackett competed with one in the most grueling race of the swimming schedule at the pinnacle of athletic achievement, and won. In fact, last European summer, Hackett defended his Olympic 1500m freestyle title and also won silver medals in the 400m freestyle and the 4x200m freestyle relay.
He has now won the 2000 and 2004 Olympic titles, the 1998, 2001, and 2003 world championships, the 1998 and 2002 Commonwealth Games titles, and the 1997, 1999, and 2002 Pan Pacific Championships.
With the Athens win under his belt, Hackett has joined an elite group of just five Aussies to have defended an Olympic title: Dawn Fraser (1956-60-64), Murray Rose (1956-60), Kieren Perkins (1992-96), and Ian Thorpe (2000-04).
He currently owns the world record, and now sits alongside Perkins and Salnikov as one of the best 1500m swimmers in history.
The two weeks in Athens might have taken a tremendous toll on his health, but the 24-year old doesn’t want to dwell on it.
“I didn’t feel fantastic, but I just pushed myself to the absolute limit. I wanted to win so badly. That’s part of what we do. It’s a test of character. Sometimes you’ve just got to do the job regardless of the situation or how you feel, and I did that.”
Mentally recovered from the hype and heroism of the Games, Hackett says he is “just taking it easy over the next few months”, concentrating on mending his health and spending the time pre-World Championships (Montreal, July 2005) on the promotional circuit, speaking at sponsor events, lunches and charity functions – as well as catching up with friends and family and watching DVDs.
Then there’s the Law degree at Bond University. (Most 20-somethings would find that enough in itself!)
“It has to be flexible, since I miss a lot of weeks with training and travel and I’m probably teaching myself about 50% of the time, but I think it’s important to be educated. The brain has to be as fit as the body. Plus it’s my dose of normality to go to uni.”
When swimming is no longer first on his list of priorities, Hackett says he would be keen to open the other doors afforded him by his high profile and dedication to studies.
“I don’t want to be a lawyer, but I wouldn’t mind getting into business, property development and the media.” But for now, it’s home and family. “My family is everything to me. I tend to travel in small chunks of between one and five weeks, but I miss them a lot. Even if they come with me, I’d be lucky to see them once, since the team is locked off for security. But it helps to know they’re there.”
For a busy man, Hackett is generous with his time. One of the first places this Miami Dolphins Swim Club member visited on his return was the pool. In all likelihood still jet-lagged, and partied-out from the celebrations, he popped in to show the kids his medals.
“It was weird. I swim with these kids every single day of my life, then, suddenly after the Games, I was a different person. It won’t be long though when I’m back in the pool and it’s all back to normal.”
Loving the Gold Coast climate and lifestyle, Hackett says there’s nowhere else he’d rather live and train and surmises that the environment could have something to do with the success of
“We have so much sunshine. It’s sunny and warm for about eight months of the year so mentally and physically it’s a lot easier to train compared to the pool at the AIS in Canberra, where it can be minus-six in the mornings.
“We have great facilities and, logistically, it’s easy to get around.”
To unwind, Hackett likes nothing better than to jet ski with mates, watch movies and just hang out. Does public attention ever get in the way of just hanging out?
“People do come up to me and say ‘congratulations’ or whatever, but that’s part of the package and you accept that.”
What’s harder to accept is the intrusion by the media.
“Being in the public eye, your relationships come under scrutiny as does your behaviour. Your private life is under pressure and magazines are constantly speculating . . . but the positives, enjoying what I do and the rewards of swimming, far outweigh the negatives. Sometimes you’re in a bad mood and the attention gets a bit much, but you just have to be courteous.”
Regular folk, and even the majority of athletes, would be envious of the streamlined Hackett. Not only does he have no worries about losing form over his rest period, he actually has to eat more to make sure he doesn’t lose too much weight.
“Yeah, I have to try and put on some pounds. I guess when you’re training hard you eat a lot. When I stop, I don’t feel as hungry.”
A return to the rigours of training looms and, at his peak, Hackett will put in around five to seven hours per day, six days a week.
Most people would marvel at the fortitude required to “chase the black line” day in, day out but, Hackett says, the motivation never ceases. “I’m always looking for new challenges. There are small stepping stones along the way to major events and milestones and, because I’m passionate about it, every day I can take it to a new level.
“When you’ve finished training, there’s a great sense of achievement. It takes discipline and that gives you a certain pride. Then there’s the fitness, which feels good too.”
Heralded as the second-fastest man in history by commentators at the Telstra World Championships, Hackett mounted the blocks at Sydney Olympic Park two weeks ago without the threat of his rival, team-mate and fastest man, Ian Thorpe, who’s on a one year break in the lead up to Beijing. “Whether Ian is here or not, there is certainly interest in the sport, he said to media at the event. “There’s a lot of talented athletes on the team. The team is respected as a whole, not a one-man band.”
In 100% health, and content with his 11 weeks of preparation after the Athens Games, Hackett swam the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m at the titles over the eight days of competition, claiming first-place in Thorpe’s pet event, the 400m, and guaranteeing a berth in the team for the World Championships in Montreal in July. The next three years in the lead up to China’s Olympic Games, Hackett is looking forward to minimal travel: “The Commonwealth Games are in Melbourne in 2006, then the World Championships in 2007 are there too. I’m glad there won’t be so much travel. ”Like most athletes, other than a few precious days off during events, even in the most exotic of locations, Hackett’s time is spent between the hotel and the pool. He describes travel for competition in terms of “being a waiter in a fabulous restaurant”. “One day I’ll be able to eat there and enjoy it, but for now . . .”
Acknowledged as an Australian icon, even at such a young age, Hackett is quick to nominate his own list of those he admires most. “My mum and dad, and coach Dennis Cottrell,” he says without hesitation. “You can look up to other sportspeople and high profile people for their achievements, but I don’t really know them. “We are all products of our environments. My family is where I look to for my strength. Their values and attitudes have contributed most to my success. They’re the people that have influenced me most.”As for Beijing, will he be there? “Definitely!” Will he contest the 400m against Thorpe? “Wait and see. I’m going to take it as it comes. My priority is the 1500m.” It’s likely he’s thinking ahead to 2008 when he has the chance to become the first man in history to win three successive 1500m Olympic titles. No doubt, the entire country will rise before dawn to watch him try.
THE DEATH OF TAXES: Apr 05, AU Edition
THE DEATH OF TAXES
As pressure builds on the Howard Government to cut taxes, IAN WISHART reports on moves in the United States that go one giant leap further, and which may yet impact on Australians: the possible abolition of income tax
There is nothing as certain, so the old joke goes, as death and taxes. But by the end of this decade, it could be income tax itself lying dead and buried in the graveyard of bright ideas that outlived their use-by dates. If it seems like a bold, even ludicrous, idea, that may be more reflective of the way we’ve been conditioned to think about income tax than the merits of the prediction.
At the heart of it all lies a “rolling thunder”-style tax revolt that’s been quietly sweeping across America since the 1990s. In places as diverse as local community halls, Washington, D.C. thinktanks, and plush resort hotels in offshore tropical tax havens, people have been quietly gathering to discuss ways of removing America’s cumbersome Internal Revenue Service (IRS) from their lives. Many of those meetings were instigated by so-called tax rebels who argued that the US Tax Code was invalid, and that people had a constitutional right, backed up by old Supreme Court judgments, not to pay the federal income tax.
Significantly, these tax rebels also took their arguments to Australians and New Zealanders in the late 1990s with a series of offshore “tax seminars” held in exotic locations like Vanuatu and Fiji. While the legal niceties of the Australasian tax codes were different to those in the US, the principles were the same and a tax revolt briefly flowered here in Australia as a result. But in America it actually took root.
Whether the arguments were right or wrong turns out to be immaterial, because as of 2005 the tax revolt has placed so much pressure on the US tax system that it’s cracking at the seams.
Just a few short weeks ago, President George W. Bush put the abolition of income tax firmly on his domestic agenda this term, with a special advisory panel due to report its recommendations by July 31st. And later in March, US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan added his voice to what is now a cacophony of calls for income tax to go, saying that individuals should be taxed on what they consume rather than what they earn.
You heard it right.
It is an issue that has barely touched the radar of most media in Australia or New Zealand, but the implications for Australasia if the United States abolishes income tax are huge. And the federal government in Canberra knows it.
Investigate understands Treasurer Peter Costello and his officials are keeping a close eye on developments in the US because – just like the old Vietnam War red peril theory – if one domino falls then other Western democracies may have no choice but to follow suit.
Most Australians born here probably cannot remember a time when income tax was not part of their lives, yet income tax is actually a very modern invention. While kings had the power to levy special taxes on ordinary citizens to pay the bills during times of war, income taxes were not permitted – and in fact had been expressly outlawed from the time of the Magna Carta. Contrary to popular belief, taxes on commoners were extremely uncommon throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Britain was the first major nation to impose an income tax, between 1799 and 1816, to fund the Napoleonic Wars with France. The US Government imposed a special income tax in 1864 to fund the Civil War effort, but under the US Constitution the tax had to be repealed in 1872.
Having seen the benefits of a national tax on citizens, however, the governments of both Britain and America realised they could do so much more if they could find a way to permanently collect income taxes. In 1874, just two years after the US tax was repealed after the Civil War, Britain introduced sweeping legislation, including a partial repeal of aspects of the Magna Carta, and gave itself the power to impose a permanent income tax.
New Zealand and Australia followed soon after. News headlines from the time disclose considerable public disquiet about the idea, and warnings it would be “the thin end of the wedge”. But in pioneer lands like Australia and New Zealand where roads and infrastructure needed building, the income tax pill was largely swallowed whole by the public. Still, there were many who felt the tax burden, at one and a half pennies in the pound (a tax rate of about 0.75% in today’s terms), was onerous. Just what those first Australians would make of today’s 50 per cent tax rates is unclear, but history appears to have borne out the warnings that giving a government the power to levy income taxes – even at 0.75% – was indeed the thin end of the wedge.
Not to be outdone by the Mother Country and the Antipodes, US officials reintroduced a federal income tax in 1894, but it was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. So in 1913, amid much lobbying from merchant bankers who saw the chance to make lots of money, the US reintroduced income tax by way of the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution. It is this document that lies at the heart of the US tax revolt after revelations in the past ten years that the Sixteenth appears never to have been properly ratified by the required number of state governments. Therefore, argue the protestors, income tax remains illegal under the US Constitution.
Either way, the protests over the past five years have seen hundreds of thousands – some commentators say it is into the millions – of American individuals and small businesses refusing to file their tax returns, and tying the IRS up in red tape and court challenges every step of the way. Adding insult to injury for the IRS, it has lost some cases in front of unsympathetic juries – fueling the perception that income tax might indeed be “voluntary” in the US.
In August 2001, Investigate was the first media organization in the southern hemisphere to report that the recently-elected President Bush was taking on board the protests and considering abolishing the federal income tax:
“The growing rebellion against income tax that’s sweeping New Zealand, Australia, the United States and Canada has just taken a major step towards achieving its goal: US President George Bush has confirmed he is considering the complete abolition of income tax in the United States.
“In a front page story in The New York Times on July 16, Bush’s chief economic advisor Lawrence Lindsey confirmed that the White House has adopted a Ground Zero approach to tax reform, and that all issues, including the scrapping of income and company tax altogether, are “in the discussion stage.”
“ ‘The facts are that one needs a broad consensus before moving on fundamental tax reform,’ Lindsey said. ‘The process of building that consensus takes time. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start the process’.
“If the White House does push ahead with ditching the century-old income tax, the newspaper reports a likely replacement is either a flat sales tax of between 20 and 30 percent, or an Australasian-style GST.
“Pressure’s been building in the United States for nearly a decade for the US Government to come clean on the constitutional status of the income tax. Lawyers, congress researchers and even former Internal Revenue Service agents are now saying the income tax is illegal - that its introduction in 1913 was not properly ratified by the states of the Union, and that ordinary Americans cannot be forced to pay it.
“The White House has also been sandwiched in a pincer movement between competing groups of tax rebels. One of them, the FairTax organisation, has congressional, bipartisan support and its cause is being championed by Congressman John Linder (R-Georgia) and Congressman Collin Peterson, (D-Minnesota).
“The two men, with a number of other politicians behind them, have introduced legislation to Congress clearing the way for the abolition of income tax in favour of the so-called FairTax.”
That was August 2001. A month later, the attacks on the World Trade Center took Bush’s attention away from domestic issues and agendas like the FairTax. But the Linder/Peterson proposal to totally reform America’s, and possibly the West’s, taxation system didn’t disappear.
Over the past four years, largely through an email blitz fired out from their website fairtax.org, the Congressmen have marshaled the support of more than half a million Americans and a large number of current and former politicians and business leaders. And, fresh from introducing democracy to the Middle East, George W. Bush now has the chance for a domestic legacy as well: becoming known to future historians as the President who killed income tax.
Bush can’t stand for re-election in 2008, so this term he’s largely unfettered by political considerations. And Bush has shown he’s a man who likes to pursue big visions.
Which is why the FairTax may return to centrestage this year.
In the form now being proposed in the US Congress, the FairTax would see the federal income tax abolished, the IRS disestablished, and the introduction of a 23% flat-rate sales tax imposed at the final point of sale to end users. Nothing particularly new in the idea of a sales tax, you might say. And critics of sales taxes are usually quick to suggest they are unfair to the low paid, because people on low incomes spend most if not all of their income on the necessities of life and have no way of avoiding a sales tax, while the wealthy can save their money or invest it and not be taxed.
It’s a simplistic argument at the best of times – the low paid haven’t generally been able to avoid income tax either – but in the case of the FairTax the argument fails at an even more basic level.
Recognising the need to ease the burden on the poor, the FairTax provides for regular tax rebates to every single household in America, so that a family of four on the poverty line, with a household income of just US$23,000 a year, will effectively pay zero tax. Under that $23,000 threshold, the tax system actually works in reverse, so that families under the poverty line will not only get all their tax back, they’ll get as much as 23% more of their income back on top of that. In real terms, say the FairTax proponents, for a family of four on a household income of US$45,000, the effective tax rate will be only 11.5%, and at $90,000 it is still only 17.2%, rising to 20% by the time you’re earning $180,000.
Compare that to Australia.
According to the ATO, a family of four in Sydney with a household income of $45,000 will be pinged almost 24% income tax on that sum, more than double the amount of tax an American family will be likely to pay under the FairTax. And over here, Australians still pay consumption taxes on top of the income tax.
President Bush has instructed a nine-member panel of
experts to conduct a series of public hearings on the idea of abolishing income tax, and they’re due to report back to the White House this coming July.
At one of the hearings in March, US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan threw his not-inconsiderable influence behind the idea of scrapping income tax and replacing it with a consumption tax. “As you know, many economists believe that a consumption tax would be best from the perspective of promoting economic growth – particularly if one were designing a tax system from scratch,” argues Greenspan, “because a consumption tax is likely to encourage saving and capital formation.”
A recent OECD report noted Australia’s marginal income tax rates are among the highest in the world. If America does indeed get rid of income tax less than a hundred years after it was introduced, it will undermine the philosophical foundations of income tax in other western democracies like Australia and New Zealand, where it has crept from 0.75 cents in the dollar when it was introduced to 48 cents in the dollar today.
Not only are the US, Australian and New Zealand tax codes huge and unwieldy – running to thousands of pages and requiring teams of Queens Counsel to interpret – the wastage in the collection system is also massive.
Most tax money taken from private citizens gets eaten by the large government bureaucracies set up to administer the system. In the US, the people behind the FairTax are quietly confident their proposal will get the green light from the White House, though it will still have to get through a string of congressional and senate committees and public hearings.
“Can you imagine,” writes one advocate, “what Joe Public will think when he wakes up one morning, five years from now, opens his paycheck and finds the government has taken nothing in tax? Suddenly, Joe is in charge of his own financial destiny.”
For Australians who, like Treasurer Peter Costello, will be watching how this plays out in the next few months, it won’t be too hard to do the math: simply punch your gross annual salary into a calculator, divide it by 52, and that’s how much take home cash you’d get every week. How much tax you’d pay would be determined entirely by how much you bought that week.
Is this kind of tax reform possible in Australia? Maybe. Just ask the people who questioned the possibility of democracy in the Middle East.
Money: Apr 05, AU Edition
THE CREDIT CARD TRAP
They’ve done it again, says Peter Higgins: banks have figured out a new set of tricks to turn your plastic into their gold
You’ve just finished paying off the overseas holiday and the Christmas presents but the credit card bills don’t quite add up. Why? The answer is simple, but the rationale is complex. The burgeoning credit card debt that we Australians are accumulating is due not just to interest rates but also to fees.
You see, the banks have divided us into two groups of credit card users. If you are the sort that pays off your credit card in stages – possibly even just paying the minimum amount each month – then you have been the bank’s friend for a long time. After all, you’ve been using your credit card as one of the most expensive forms of bank loan allowed by law.
On the other hand, there are those of us who pay off our credit cards in full each month and, until recently, we have evaded the clutches of our “service provider”. Up until recently using a credit card this way has been smart because it effectively used someone else’s money for cash flow while avoiding compound interest rates of 18.5% or more.
It did not take our financial institutions and credit providers long to work all this out, and now there are a number of new fees that are designed to catch we ‘cash flow card’ users. A good way to illustrate this is to recount a real-life story that occurred to someone I know who went on holiday over Christmas.
Mr J’s BIG NEW PURCHASE
Mr J had not purchased a ‘good’ camera for around twenty years and decided that he wanted one to suit his needs for the next twenty. He researched many cameras and eventually decided on a state-of-the-art modern digital camera. Mr J spent three months doing his homework – not just on the technology, but also on prices. On an overseas trip in Japan he haggled, negotiated, and did lots of walking. Indeed, he spent almost a full day figuring out where to buy a camera for the best price. Finally, after all this time and effort he purchased his dream camera. Mr J was pleased with all this effort because, at the end of the day, he calculated that he saved about $500.
But he paid for his purchase using a credit card, and his decision on which card to use was based on loyalty: loyalty to his bank, NAB, which he has been with for many years. Feeling pleased with himself he goes off and takes many memorable photographs with his new toy.
Yet a few weeks later when he receives his statement, he sees that the camera cost him almost $500 more than he expected. There is nothing on the statement to explain this – not even an exchange rate listed. Not even the original amount in local currency is stated, just the Australian dollar equivalent. He quickly emails his bank asking, “Why is this so?” The answer comes in a fashion that is becoming increasingly more common these days, a mixture of bureaucracy and arrogance mingled with a tincture of attitude that says,“This would be a great job if it weren’t for the customers”.
The bank’s response is that Mr J should have read his 52-page booklet of terms and conditions. If he had, he would have known that the bank chooses when to exchange currencies, and therefore what
exchange rate is used. And of course there is that fee of 1.5% (soon to rise to 2.5%) on the full Australian dollar equivalent.
Mr J sends more emails asking what all this means in normal language and could he have a breakdown of the figures that relate to his specific case. At time of writing, these exchanges have been continuing for over three months and he still does not have his answer. He does have more quotes from the corporate complaint manual about ‘escalating this to the next level’, but no real answers.
There are three lessons in Mr J’s story for all of us. The first is: Don’t choose a credit card on loyalty: it is misguided and not reciprocated. Choose a card that has the lowest fees, or no fees, and ask them before you go overseas when they will exchange currencies.
Secondly, force yourself to read the voluminous pages of legal gobbledygook that are sent to you. Whilst they may not make
immediate sense, these documents are what your financial institution uses to make all their decisions, and these decisions are not always in your best interests.
Finally, if you do have a legitimate complaint, do not expect a response that places customer service as the motivating drive of your credit provider. In fact, you will need to be persistent and have a hide as thick as a Credit Card Terms and Conditions Manual.
When I look at Mr J’s story, it seems to me that fees for international transactions come awfully close to double or even triple dipping. There is a fee for the privilege of using their credit card and buying something with it. On top of that, the credit provider chooses the most advantageous rate of exchange for them. Then, finally, they charge interest on everything.
So are financial institutions punishing loyalty? Have the financial institutions that we have stuck with and stood by for years traded customer service for profits? It’s an old chestnut I know, but it seems more relevant to ask the question now than ever before. Let’s look at a list of fees that are being charged by some financial institutions:
* Annual card fee from $25 to $99 per year.
* Late payment fee from $10 to $35 per month, and in some case per fortnight as well as interest repayments.
* International transaction fees – 1.5% (most banks will soon raise this to 2.5%) of the purchase amount.
* Cash advance fees by some banks including Westpac and ANZ 1.5% of amount of cash advance.
* Annual reward scheme fee - $15 up to $69 per year.
* Exceeding your credit limit - $4 to $25.
* Issuing a secondary card - $4 to $40.
* Refusal of periodical payment - $4 to $10.
* Replacing a lost card - $4 to $30.
* Duplicate statements – $4 to $10.
All in all, you could be up for hundreds or even thousands of dollars in fees each year if you don’t manage your credit card correctly.
We are all in the hands of credit providers but credit card usage can still be a smart way to buy goods and services. The playing field has changed dramatically over the past twelve months – and it is still changing – but as long as you know the rules you can still benefit financially. When you finish reading this magazine do an audit on your current credit card situation. How many do you have? What types? What financial institutions are providing you with credit cards? What rates are you being charged? What fees? Do you have an interest-free period? When you have completed your audit do some research on the Web. It should take no longer than thirty minutes. What available cards are better than yours? Which ones have the best rates or no fees? After your audit and research cut up your existing cards and send them back to your credit provider. If nothing else, it will empower you and make you feel great. Apply for no more than three credit cards from the providers that you have researched. Within three months, you will be in a better position than you are now. Remember that you are in control of your finances; our financial institutions are not in control of what we do. You will not only be better off financially if you regain or improve your control, but you will also feel empowered and revitalised. Go for it, you have nothing to lose except your Terms and Conditions Manuals. See you around the traps.
A FEW TIPS:
1. If you want to avoid paying interest on your credit purchases you must pay the full outstanding balance on your statement by the due date. If you don’t, you will be charged interest right back to the date of purchase on each item – this means you will forfeit the interest-free period on those purchases. What’s worse is that you must pay the balance off in full before you will get another interest-free period on any purchases. And if you don’t pay your balance off in full you will be charged interest on your full balance for that month and not what is left after your payment.
2. Say no to cash advances! Why? I am a bit surprised to hear that people still don’t realise that interest-free periods do not apply to cash advances. In fact, with the majority of credit providers you pay interest from the time you withdraw the money regardless of when you pay it off.
3. See if you are entitled to relationship partner discounts. If you have multiple accounts at your financial institution they may discount your credit card fees because of your other
accounts. If you have a mortgage and your bank secures all its accounts against your house, why are you still paying an interest rate as if your credit card is an unsecured high-risk loan for the bank? It is worth the ask.
4. Don’t be conned by marketing tricks. These are developed to appeal to your emotions. Reduced introductory interest rates and reward programs may not suit your financial situation or your spending pattens. Decide on a card based on logic and understand you purchase behaviours.
5. Know what you want.
6. Do you really want a reward program? These may seem attractive, but most institutions charge a hefty fee to be a member of their reward program. Have you also noticed that you now need more points to claim the same reward compared to a few years ago. In many cases you have to spend more to accumulate the same number of points compared to a few years ago. In most circumstances people are better off using a credit card with a low rate and little or no fees rather than joining a ‘loyalty’ program that sometimes costs more than it rewards.
7. Always pay off more than the minimum. Many credit providers are only asking for payments of 1.5% per month, which can be a trap because it is likely that you will take 2 years or more to pay off your purchase and accumulated interest bill.
8. Consolidate debt. If you owe large amounts on many cards it is in your best interest to consolidate debt and put all outstanding monies onto one loan, preferably a personal loan rather than a credit card, because the rates will be almost half that of most credit cards.
POSTCARD FROM THE EDGE: Apr 05, AU Edition
POSTCARD FROM THE EDGE
If Geoff Mackley were a cat, he’d almost surely have used up his quota of lives by now. As the world’s ultimate storm-chaser and subject of the Discovery Channel’s Dangerman series, Mackley is little short of a survival miracle…the kind of guy you’d stand next to in an electrical storm. Our CLARE SWINNEY caught up with the man whose images of natural disaster are spawning a new breed of reality media
He carries a video camera, a digital still camera, a satellite phone and a flame-proof suit. He has been pursued by Army helicopters; almost blasted off a mountaintop; and dangled over gaping chasms.
Little wonder, perhaps, that they call Geoff Mackley ‘Rambocam’. It began as a childhood hobby of taking photos of natural phenomena, and developed into an extraordinary career with a worldwide reputation of going where others fear to tread. Photographer, cameraman and reporter all rolled into one, Geoff Mackley carts his cameras and satellite phone virtually anywhere where a tsunami has struck, where a cyclone is perilously hovering, where a volcano is erupting, and he’ll often be the first one there. His priceless pictures, which appear in science books, newspapers, on TV and in magazines, have come to define how people throughout the world perceive natural disasters.
Not surprisingly, the activities of this intrepid photographer have been the focus of a mass of media attention. The Discovery Channel featured a series about him named Dangerman and he’s appeared in seventeen other TV shows. He has also been interviewed hundreds of times in the past for newspapers and questioned at length for his soon-to-be-released autobiography.
While making it clear he could never even conceive of tiring of his work, which is now all-consuming, he confesses to being pig-sick of being interviewed.
When we first contacted him on the 11th of February, he’d arrived home , half-an-hour earlier from Rarotonga, where he’d been taking photographs of damage to waterfront buildings caused by a 14-metre storm surge driven by Cyclone Meena. He suggests I call back that evening to enable him to have time to update his website, www.geoffmackley.com, amongst other things. Yet when I contact him at 8pm he sayshe is unavailable as he is monitoring emergency channels and intends to maintain this vigil over most of Saturday and Sunday.
“Try Valentine’s Day, 10am,” he offers.
But the 14th, at 10am, proves similarly fruitless; two menacing-looking cyclones, Olaf and Nancy, are brewing in the South Pacific region and Mackley is furiously poring over weather reports, trying to decide if he should go to Samoa, where one of the fierce storms is predicted to hit. Later in the day, I finally hit paydirt, nailing the elusive Mackley to the end of a landline, albeit that the interview becomes punctuated by the crackle of police scanners and emergency vehicle sirens in the background. You can’t, it seems, keep
Mackley, 41, was born and raised in Christchurch; his mother a high school librarian and his father employed by a customs broker. It was his dad who first kindled Mackley’s interest in photographing
“Dad used to take me and my two younger brothers, Richard and Steven, on trips to take pictures of freak conditions, such as snowstorms and flooding. We were brought up with an interest in
nature. I started doing what I’m doing because I’m interested in nature and it evolved to what’s happening now. I never really expected that to happen. I never thought for a moment I’d be doing this,” he ruminates.
In the late 1980’s Mackley attended the University of Canterbury to study psychology, because it was “very interesting,” then dropped out after one-and-a-half years because he didn’t think it was going to be a meal ticket. Mackley had other ideas. Armed with predictions of bad weather, he would pack photographic gear into an old Land Rover and go to where a flood was anticipated, shooting it as it happened.
“Nobody was doing that then, as far as the media goes. It still amazes me that to a large extent the media don’t even do that now. You’d think that if a news event is about to happen, go there before it starts!”
In spite of a lack of formal training in photography and broadcasting (or arguably perhaps because of it), Mackley began working for Channel 10’s New Zealand affiliate news team in 1990, just after the new network’s establishment. He took pictures of natural disasters around the country for the six o’clock news and has been in the game ever since.
In September 1995 he got his first big international break. Majestic Mount Ruapehu was predicted to erupt again and he was waiting patiently nearby with his camera equipment. When the grey ash shot into the troposphere, his career as it is today was launched.
Mackley’s pictures began appearing on TV news shows, in newspapers and in magazines throughout the world. The words “meal ticket” began flashing in his mind, and pretty soon Mackley was taking pictures of volcanos erupting overseas and selling them to a wide range of media. His humble intention in 1995 was to generate sufficient income in order to recover the cost of the trip and be able to go on another trip and then another…
Mackley is coy about how much he makes. He says he doesn’t want to boast.
“Two hundred thousand?” we press.
“It’s a bit more than that,” he defers – which in translation means it’s notably more. Almost as an apology for this bounty, Mackley seems keen to impress that he works very hard for what he earns. He evidently does. He seems completely focused. There’s no room in his life for marriage or children. He allocates much of his time off work to maintaining a high level of fitness. His 178-centimetre tall, 76-kilogram muscular form is probably in far better shape than bodies half his age. “I feel the same I did when I was twenty. I exercise everyday. If I go for a run, it’ll be for about three hours. I spend a lot of time running in the bush, I work out, do weights and martial arts,” he asserts. As his broadcast camera alone weighs seven kilograms and climbing mountainous terrain at any time is a possibility, being unwaveringly fit is an essential part of his life.
“I’m also careful to eat well. I don’t eat crap. If you put bad fuel in a car it doesn’t work properly. Well the body’s the same. It’s common sense,” says Mackley.
Currently about 90 percent of his time at work is spent monitoring what’s going on locally and around the world. He uses the Internet and radio for this. “That’s the key thing - that it’s 90 percent gathering information and 10 percent going out and after something,” he maintains.
Naturally, he’s amassed an extensive knowledge of the world’s weather patterns and now knows what’s likely to happen where and at any given time of the year. He says there’s no busiest time of year. It is invariably busy, as Mother Nature has different seasons around the world. The cyclone season is from November to April. Tornado season is in May and June. August through to November is
typhoon and hurricane season in the US and volcanoes may erupt at any time.
He says the Internet has been an invaluable source for information about weather and volcanic activity, enabling his career to flourish. He asserts: “The Internet is the beginning and end of everything! Because the Internet is completely free of boundaries. It’s instant. I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’m doing now, ten years ago.”
The meteorology services worldwide put data on the Internet for everybody to see instantaneously. In addition, there’s an aviation website that provides updates immediately a volcano begins to erupt which Mackley watches “constantly,” so if a crater blows, he’ll be one of the first people to know about it. One can find links to his sources on his website.
The total cost of his equipment is in the vicinity of $100,000. He says that although it’s expensive, he expects it to last for years. He uses a satellite phone at disaster scenes, which is a necessary requirement in regions lacking a functioning infrastructure. This is used to transmit photos to a few news services, but at $16 a minute, it is uneconomical to send shots around like confetti.
Consequently, he prefers to put high-resolution versions of photographs on his website for newspapers and magazines to download - although this mode of dissemination comes at a cost too. He says that although the majority of media outlets publishing his work remunerate him without having to be prompted, there’s invariably a percentage which don’t. “It’s a pain in the backside really, because when you’re trying to sell still photos, many outfits will avoid paying for them if possible. You’ve always got to track down whether or not they’ve used it or not. Half the time they won’t bother to tell you and it’s not worth chasing up twenty or thirty newspapers just for $100 or whatever,” he complains.
An assortment of his best images can be viewed on his website. He uses a Nikon F90 digital camera for his still photos and says a good photo, as any news editor will tell you, has to tell a story in one shot, ideally with people in it or an object to give it scale.
He believes an image can be a wonderfully powerful tool to help people in need of aid. And one of the best moments of his 20-year career was being able to bring aid to the small island of Tikopia following the strongest cyclone ever in the South Pacific, a cyclone which thrashed villages with 350 kilometre per hour winds, completely destroying everything. His was an extraordinary story.
Cyclone Zoe, as it was named, hit Tikopia in the Solomon Islands in late December 2002, bringing gigantic waves with it.
“I’m not an expert, but I can see from a satellite map when an island is being hammered and it’d be common sense to go and see what’s happened to these people [about 1,200] who no one has heard from for four or five days,” he says. But the airforce and military, in both New Zealand and Australia, did nothing. So he decided to fly to Tikopia in a Cessna and discovered an island completely wrecked. Mackley, who was freelancing, photographed the devastation from the air only because it was impossible to land. This story was on the news that night and broadcast all around the world. He reported that the place looked as if it had been hit by an atomic bomb. He says matter-of-factly: “I suspect if I hadn’t gone there and brought it to everyone’s attention, it’s quite possible nothing would’ve been done. The New Zealand Airforce claimed that it was impossible to get there and then I got there in a Cessna.”
The day after his first report, someone from a French newspaper contacted him and asked him to get on the island anyway he could, at their cost.
Accordingly, he chartered a helicopter from Vanuatu. He filled it with packets of noodles and arrived on Tikopia to be the first outsider there since the cyclone hit and four to five days ahead of any official rescue mission. “I thought it was extraordinary,
because I wasn’t doing anything that I considered to be that out of the ordinary. I just went to the airport and asked ‘Who owns that Cessna? Is it possible to fly to Tikopia?’…‘Yes’…‘So let’s do it.’ And it was the same with the helicopter,” he asserts. Fortunately, there were no casualties, as the Tikopians were accustomed to cyclones and were sheltering in caves in their highlands.
Indeed, the camera is a very powerful tool when used correctly. Bringing images of chaos and destruction to the world is the direct cause of aid arriving – a prime example the aftermath of the tsunami. Mackley believes the amount of aid donated is directly related to the TV coverage – the two being very closely linked. “I don’t feel so bad filming misery and destruction if I know it’s going to bring some good. There are a number of Pacific Islands that are not that well off and they know full well who I am and they welcome me when a cyclone’s coming - because they know that film of the event getting on the news greatly enhances their prospects of getting aid,” he offers, seeming grateful to be of help.
Unfortunately, however, Mackley has found that providing images of destruction can be a two-edged sword. While he regards the camera as a means to elicit donations, sadly, time and time again, he witnesses huge damage being inflicted upon Pacific Island nations by grossly unbalanced news stories. The media, he accuses, ham up the bad part of an event, with little apparent thought of the consequences. He has seen all facets of the media exaggerate the devastation caused by storms; and resultant negative publicity has dissuaded hordes of tourists from journeying there.
“People believe what they see on the news – and they shouldn’t. A cyclone hits a small Pacific Island, [for instance Tonga]. It is highly reliant upon tourism and although the residents clean up the damage in a few days, because a few selective shots of flattened buildings are shown in the news, making it look as if everywhere is decimated and no mention is made that it was all cleaned up in a few days – because that’s a boring story, I’ve seen huge economic damage
being caused for 6 to 8 months,” he says, sounding annoyed. “Sure, there were a few damaged buildings, but that’s not indicative of what the whole country looks like. Often that’s how the media portray it. If there’s widespread destruction, I’m certainly going to say that, but if there isn’t, I don’t,” he says.
In addition, he says that the amount of misreporting about the Tikopian disaster was “incredible.” For the first four to five days, all the information that emanated from the island came only from Mackley. He was guarded about what he said, because he didn’t know if anyone had been killed or not. Thus, he reported that the damage was very bad and it would be amazing if there weren’t many casualties. Then to his shock, he heard stories from outfits such as CNN and the BBC about thousands of people being killed and the island being hit by tornadoes and tsunamis – events that in fact had not occurred. He contends: “It beggars belief where they get those things from in the first place, considering no one else was giving them information except me! So you can see why one would be cynical about the media.”
Although he rarely writes news stories that accompany his images, he’s occasionally a target for caustic reac-tions to them. “I’ve had people from airlines phone me and say: ‘Your story just cost us millions of dollars worth of business because hundreds of people cancelled their airfares minutes after your story went on,’” he offers.
The title ‘Dangerman,’ for the 2004 TV series made for the Discovery Channel about his activities, was a misnomer. His work is perfectly safe, he says. “I’m no closer than anyone else who drives a car to danger. When people drive down any two-lane stretch of rural road, they’re passing within half-a-metre of every other car, going at 80-100 kilometres an hour. I don’t have car-size rocks landing that close to me at volcanoes, ever! Yet people take it for granted that driving is not a risk, when in fact, it is. It’s more of a risk than what I do,” he offers, adding than when he climbs a volcano he’s in complete control of how close he gets “to the action” – unless of course the action gets close to him.
He has had close calls however, one in Mexico during a hurricane. “A building fell. I was underneath the balcony of the building and all the debris – about 50 tonnes of concrete – cascaded down about a metre away from me,” he says. Luckily, he was uninjured.
Another reminder of his mortality occurred in Indonesia. His taxi driver got lost en route to the railway station, so he missed the train he intended to catch, which subsequently collided head on with another train, which was then ploughed into by another train. He’d be dead had it not been for the taxi driver’s incompetence. Indeed, transport he says is his biggest risk, because every time he’s on a train, a bus or in a car, there’s a potential for serious injury, which is out of his control, but so far, injuries have not yet put him hospital: “In this job, you’re either alive or dead!” crows Mackley.
The name Mackley wanted to use for the Dangerman show was his nickname, Rambocam, but as copyright laws protect ‘Rambo’, it was not an option. So how did he acquire the wonderful nickname Rambocam?
This is another interesting story, demonstrating the extraordinary lengths Geoff Mackley will go to “get the shot”. It was in the mid-1990s, down on army land on New Zealand’s central North Island. The Department of Conservation was supposed to round up the region’s wild horses and attempt to sell them before killing the remainder. However, Mackley had become privy to information that a number of horses had already been killed and dumped in a big pit on army land, with no effort having been made to sell them.
“Of course, the army personnel wouldn’t let us in there. Several reporters and newspaper cameramen found out the location of this pit, and we decided we were going to storm in on army land and get pictures of the dead horses, come what may.”
He had a 4-wheel drive vehicle, while the others had cars. The cars became stuck in the mud, by which time the army was chasing them in a helicopter. Consequently, everyone piled into Mackley’s
all-terrain vehicle and he pressed on the accelerator in hot pursuit of the horse pit. Meanwhile, the army landed a helicopter on the road in front of them in an attempt to stall their progress, but ineffectually so.
“It was like a scene from a Die Hard movie.”
Later, Mackley’s vehicle became stuck in the ground, so all the journalists piled out and began running up the hill to the pit.
Because it was a steep hill, the army couldn’t land the helicopter and so hovered above, yelling for the group to stop – but this was falling on deaf ears, as this media mob knew the army didn’t have authority over them. The army then landed the chopper at the base of the hill and some personnel got out and ran up the hill, only to get back in the helicopter again.
“It was really quite comical. And then, in the end, another helicopter appeared with the police in it, and we did listen to them. We knew that while the army didn’t have any authority over us, the police did. So we left, but nothing happened to us. The police thought it was quite amusing that a group of reporters had managed to evade the army for 3 or 4 hours,” says Mackley, chuckling. From this point on, cameramen and reporters from TV3 and TVNZ called him “Rambocam” and the name stuck.
One of the best facets of being Mackley is that everyday is a new day.
“I don’t have the day-to-day pressures that everyone else has – just sitting in a traffic jam and doing the same boring job for years and they are sitting in the same traffic jam and haven’t really moved forward or achieved anything, and know full well what they’re doing tomorrow or the day after,” he says. In contrast, Geoff Mackley doesn’t know what he’s going to be doing from one day to the next. He could be on the other side of the world the next day, facing a volcano that’s erupting or standing in a region devastated by a tsunami. He doesn’t know, and that’s part of why he regards his life as so exceptional. On his website is the phrase: ‘Life is an incredible adventure or it’s nothing at all.’ He really believes it. “I live for each day. I intend to be doing this for as long as I can. I probably won’t be able to climb volcanoes forever, but I can certainly fly to the other side of the world, get in a rental car and drive to a hurricane, until I’m…who knows…there are people running marathons in their 80’s,” he says.
He has a reputation as one of the top photographers of natural disasters in the world – if not the top. Yet as the sirens on the police scanner in the background grow in their intensity, you can almost see Mackley beginning to twitch down the end of the phone. Always, there’s another story just around the corner, another mountain to climb. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
REVENGE OF THE NERDS: Apr 05, AU Edition
REVENGE OF THE NERDS
Australian families are spending more on education than ever – but what are they getting for their money? A crash course in left-wing political indoctrination, heaps of parties, but not much in the way of real learning, says SAMANTHA HO
Once upon a time when children finished school, their families could wish them well and send them on their way. Their offspring might have decided to pursue a career in surveying, nursing, soldiering, chorus dancing, boiler-making, or home-making. But whatever well-trodden path the children chose, the majority of parents from thirty-odd years ago could look forward to having some privacy again as a couple. This was just as true for more well-to-do parents, whose release from their young came when their young intelligentsia moved out to go
Happy to escape the suburbs, Australia’s new undergraduates would collect a bunch of milk crates for furnishings and set up a share house with other students. Then they would start a band, have pregnancy scares, and read Marx (Karl, not Groucho) at bus stops while smoking French cigarettes. Quite often, the university students of old would also concentrate on confounding the working public via wacky gags like handing out the Pill to nuns while playing double bass clad only in Marx noses (Groucho this time). Then, of course, they graduated to become barristers, diplomats, doctors, politicians, and academics, building wonderful wine cellars, donating a wing or two to their old high schools, and holidaying in the south of France. Their path through university was aided by the scholarships and living allowances that the Commonwealth used to hand out to a majority of students.
Such taxpayer-funded generosity was quite forthcoming thirty years ago when tertiary institutions were no-fee finishing schools for the well-to-do, and enrolled less than a third of the more than 900,000 students who cram today’s campuses. But like all good parties, that one wasn’t meant to last, and when the Hawke Government expanded a university education into a mass market phenomenon in the late 1980s, fees appeared and started rising, as did heavy restrictions on student assistance schemes. The proportion of students receiving Commonwealth scholarships and other benefits fell from about two thirds thirty years ago to less than thirty per cent now.
The results of this shift might please armchair anthropologists given to admiring the social cohesion of countries where nine or ten generations of a single family customarily live under the one roof. Others weep.
Do you have a university student in your household? Whether you are helping with the fees or simply covering other expenses, tertiary study these days eats money. One way or another you’re probably paying through the nose for the privilege of helping your young know-it-all join the ever-expanding ranks of the university educated.
Even a place subsidised by the government under what was known as the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (now it’s called Commonwealth-supported) can cost about $8,000 a year. Full-fee places for students who fall a mark or two short of the entry cut-off can be billed at more than $20,000 per year.
Then there’s all the textbooks, photocopying, stationery, SMS bills, food and fun costs, and compulsory student union fees.
The non-tuition costs of university life quickly drain the wallet with many textbooks small-run, high-price editions and annual compulsory union fees of up to $590. Not to mention another $7,000 or so each year in rent for those lucky or resourceful students who move to a share house in defiance of this age of “adultescence” – the epidemic of children living with their parents into their twenties and even thirties. And for parents whose kids live at home, the situation is even worse.
So is all this worth the thousands you and the students pay, and the billions the government pours in courtesy of your taxes?
When the government recently admitted a drastic shortage of skilled labour and said that Australia might have to admit another 20,000 foreign tradespeople to keep industry and the economy alive, they certainly weren’t talking about any urgent need for more batches of “social researchers”, “advocates”, or “change agents” – all graduate career paths listed in this year’s NSW universities admissions guide.
No, they were talking about graduates with functional and constructive skills – engineers, health professionals, and people who can actually do stuff like build ships, rather than merely interpreting the changing role of seamen in representations of queer identity.
Of course, the trades are not for the squeamish - wielding welders can be a good deal more hazardous to one’s health than waving about a sociology text.
Physically, at least. For surely it can’t be good for the soul to spend years indulging in intellectual tomfoolery – which is the only way to describe an awful lot of what goes on in Australia’s tertiary classrooms.
Some of the more offensive variety are disguised amongst what would seem to be fairly straightforward but growing vocational areas, like communications. That’s journalism, public relations, or marketing right? Wrong.
Have a look at the communications offerings at one of Australia’s more cutting-edge institutions, the University of Technology, Sydney. Here we find the wonderful Bachelor of Communications (social inquiry), which gives whiners the opportunity to feel right at home in what used to be the realm of tough, critical thinking. But then again, why master the hard-won secrets of engineering or physics when you can indulge in the opinion-page pleasing zone “where social theory, research and communication converge. It offers … [students] the skills to participate effectively in social change.”
One could be forgiven for thinking that social change was what pioneering doctors, lawyers or engineers did in bringing their skills to the outback or to the downtrodden, or what urban planners could do by ditching the Macquarie Fields/Redfern-style ghetto model of public housing.
But no, social change is a discrete topic in today’s universities.
The “professional subjects” for budding social changers include “social change, Australian history and politics, belief systems, cultural studies, globalisation, [and] gender and diversity.” (A prize for the reader who can guess which way this all leans in terms of its ideological underpinnings.)
And while we’re at UTS, let’s take a look at some of the traditional courses. How about nursing, an area where the Federal Government just gave UTS a stack more places to make up for the University of Sydney’s decision to phase out of undergraduate nursing.
In between learning to care for people, budding nurses have the opportunity to study Organisational Relationships, where they learn about “critical issues of health care delivery … with particular emphasis on the effects of power, policy and politics”.
Do you have any young kids, or are you planning some? Well, let’s take a look at what our next generation of teachers are learning.
With Australia crying out for more skilled, literate and numerate workers who aren’t snobs about doing hard yakka, what better subject for our teachers could there be than UTS’s Sociology of Education, where topics include “the direction of social change and the nature of globalisation”. No wonder so few people were surprised when Wayne Sawyer, president of the NSW English Teachers Association, announced that he thought his profession wasn’t doing its job if students kept graduating and voting for the wrong guy, i.e., Howard.
In an era crying out for Realpolitik, is it any wonder the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s latest online graduate recruiting drive features a trainee whose background is not in the humanities, but in the logic-heavy disciplines of mathematics and computer science? Plus the trainee, Axel, has actually learnt foreign languages instead of doing vacuous “cultural studies”.
But then again, if DFAT have any questions about how the world works, they only need to pick up the phone to the student unions, who operate on budgets totalling hundreds of millions of dollars nationally, and who use their funding to develop deeply wise policies and positions on everything. With membership of student unions compulsory in every state except Western Australia, chances are the students in your household have been forced to give money to a small clique of delusional ratbags who would die off the moment that unionism becomes voluntary.
First cab off the rank could be the National Union of Students (NUS), an um- brella organisation that collects millions of dollars each year from its affiliate campuses.
The NUS spends up big on get-togethers where it thrashes out wildly entertaining “platforms”, such as a gem from 2001 when the NUS expressed its outrage that the US and its allies attacked the Taliban and al Qa’ida, in a “racist war of terror”. In a dastardly twist, the evil US’s attack on Islam’s theocratic fascists in Afghanistan “perpetuates women’s and queer oppression”.
The Taliban executed homosexuals by collapsing walls on them and barred women from attending school, but somehow it all turns into a Western plot, and the NUS called on “the US government and its ally, Australia, to withdraw troops and military operations”. It would be hilarious if this was some nutter’s blog instead of a multimillion dollar organisation funded by hundreds of thousands of university students.
The totalitarian impulse has bled out of much of Western society since the end of the Cold War, but not in student unionism, where the NUS proclaims that “under capitalism the university does not function as a site of critical learning, but rather as a training ground for industry and big business.”
OK, so how do we explain the skills shortage and the preponderance of “social change” courses?
But wait, it gets better: “A fundamental restructuring of the education sector, and of society, is necessary.”
Says who? A pack of undergraduate nitwits who have grown fat off the proceeds of compulsory student unionism.
Luckily for students who would rather make up their own minds whether they want to spend hundreds of dollars each year joining a union, the Federal Government will later this year introduce Voluntary Student Unionism legislation to the Senate. Expect plenty of noise.
And as pointed out in a recent rare moment of the Sydney Morning Herald reporting first and spinning second, the NUS is struggling to come up with a response to the dire threat of consumer choice.
Their main counter attack so far has been an Orwellian assault on language. From the NUS website: “It is very important that we take control of the language being used … Voluntary Student Unionism [VSU] is a positive term in a linguistic sense, and in an ideological sense, for some.”
Can’t let choice be positive: “Instead of VSU … say Anti-Student Organisation.”
In fact, don’t even use the word ‘union’ in this individualist era: “Instead of student union say student organisation or student council.”
And sidestep the ugly truth: “Never refer to compulsory fees or membership. Always use universal membership or universal fees.”
So this will be an interesting year if you have a student at home.
Either they will be happily under the capitalist thumb, learning something useful or intellectually rigorous, or they will somehow combine a zeal for social change with white-hot fury that the Commonwealth wants to give students like them more freedom of choice.
And if you want to get your money’s worth when helping a child through university, encourage them to learn the core disciplines of their area of interest, subjects like mathematics, history, or a language, rather than content-free spin-offs such as social change or cultural studies.
University costs plenty, so focus on the protein – not the frippery.
BISHOP TO CHECK MATING: Apr 05, AU Edition
BISHOP TO CHECK MATING
Home care, not day care. A “French” model for pre-schooling. Helping “supermums” do it all. Investigate editor JAMES MORROW recently caught up with controversial federal MP Bronwyn Bishop, who’s just launched a parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s flagging birth rate and the work-life balance, to discuss what Canberra can do to persuade more people to have kids, and help those who’ve already taken the parenthood plunge
INVESTIGATE: You’ve just announced that your Standing Committee on Family & Human Services is launching an inquiry into Australia’s birthrate and work-life balance, and perhaps the best way to
begin is to ask, what ways do you see government being able to effect change in this sort of area of Australians’ lives?
BRONWYN BISHOP, MP: Well the first thing is, it’s not peculiar to us, it is a problem affecting the whole of the Western civilized world, that countries are losing population. So there’s already been a lot of discussion about it, and I think that it is timely that we start to bring it together.
My interest grew in this initially from 1999, when I was Minister for Aged Care, and when I had responsibility for the Year of the Older Person, and of course I really wanted to understand and document the impact of an aging population on Australia’s population. So I commissioned Access Economics to do the research, and that
was the first research that was done – from which we subsequently got the Inter-generational Report.
But the problems that we identified – how do you keep mature-age workers in the work force, issues of productivity, all that – we’ve passed that period, and we know where to go. The corollary is: what do we do about people in their twenties and thirties? We know that people stay in education longer, people have children later, we know that one quarter of women will never have any children, and we want to look at the reasons why people are doing that.
INVESTIGATE: Sure, and the reasons a lot of people have cited are that people want to have a career, get themselves situated, have various life experiences, travel, and all that – how can you effect a cultural shift and have people go back to where they want to start a family earlier?
BISHOP: It’s not a question of going back to where we were; it’s a question of what pressures can be relieved through the use of public policy. What can we do to make people feel that they can in fact create an environment and a home where they can feel comfortable keeping a relationship and a family intact, and what are the policies that can help bring that about?
Now under the terms of reference we’re looking at taxation, because taxation is the driver of so many things and so many behaviours. Obviously the question of childcare will arise, and we will be certainly looking at other countries’ models, and we will be looking at countries like France. In terms of childcare they seem to have a system which gives more children care, and their birthrate is now above ours – they’ve pushed it up again.
INVESTIGATE: Of course if you look at a place like France, you’re also talking about a place where you have large groups of immigrant families who are having many more children than the native-born population, to say nothing of all the economic problems they’ve had from the social benefits that make it more expensive to
BISHOP: Well, France has a problem with a lot of the way it organizes itself, such as the fact that they introduced a 35-hour work week. We’re not the slightest bit interested in that, and I think it has been pejorative for the French nation. And from a family point of view, there is a lot of evidence around that it actually makes it harder for women to work and raise a family because it is a lot tougher to have certainty of hours.
But in other policies, such as where they have an effective pre-school system for children three to six, which covers 99% of French children, certainly immigration is part of the question – we have immigration here too and we would cease to grow if were not
INVESTIGATE: On the question of childcare here, there’s a huge problem with the actual number of childcare places. Parents get a benefit for the money they pay, and get some of that back, and that goes with the whole question of tax policy – but an awful lot of parents can’t get their kids into a place. What can be done about this?
BISHOP: Look, why do we put all our resources into childcare places, which at the end of the day is an institution? Why aren’t we looking, as we have with other service deliveries, why aren’t we looking at the home? We made a good start with the 30% rebate which will come in from 2006 for childcare expenses, but again that’s through childcare places. We’ll certainly be looking at options and alternatives.
Going back to my aged care analogy, people don’t really want to be in institutions, they want to be at home. And asMinister I introduced thousands of [funded] places for people to remain in their own homes. So there’s no reason why we shouldn’t look at service delivery in other ways.
INVESTIGATE: When you say “in the home”, you mean making it easier for parents to stay at home with their children, or to have people come in and look after kids, or what?
BISHOP: Well, we actually need young women to return to the workforce. We made a big investment in their education, the country needs a return on that, and they know they’ve got a one-in-two chance of being divorced. They need to get their skills up because they might be heading up their own families. So all these things are all very real issues.
But looking at help in the home – instead of having to go into an institution to do that – there is some evidence of that happening in France. So we’ll be looking at those things as well.
INVESTIGATE: What about leave policies? I know that’s something that Pru Goward has been talking a lot about – questions of how you get people to take advantage of benefits fully. For men, for example, they may not want to take advantage of parental leave in their office if it leaves them vulnerable to getting overtaken by someone else in their office who doesn’t.
BISHOP: To me, maternity leave is no doubt to be discussed. My personal view is that when you’re looking at issues of decisions to have a child and to be in the workforce, it’s not a thirteen week problem, it’s a thirteen year problem. And it could be a thirty year problem! But in reality, we have to look outside the square and look beyond our regular way of doing things.
INVESTIGATE: Speaking of outside the square, you’ve brought up France a couple of times, and you’ve mentioned their polices of services in the home. Help us get our heads across some of these ideas, how this would work.
BISHOP: One of the ideas would be to have a tax deduction for paying people who come and work in your home to come and care for not only children but also do aged care, look after grown parents, and so on, in people’s homes. I took a look at the ABS figures and found that for those sorts of jobs that are in the black economy, they’re worth about six billion dollars in foregone tax. So it’s not all an expenditure question, it’s also one of creating proper jobs – all those things need to be looked at.
INVESTIGATE: I’m sure you saw the Australian this morning, which reported the latest numbers from the OECD on taxation and marginal tax rates and how much money the government takes. There seems to be a lot of talking about giving people benefits for this and that rather than just cutting people’s tax, letting them keep more on the front end, and making up their own minds what to do with it.
BISHOP: Look, my personal views on this are well known. I’m a strong believer in the philosophy of free enterprise and individualism. Individuals will always spend their money more wisely than governments who take it and say we’re going to spend it on your behalf. That is the basic position I come from philosophically, and the principles of free enterprise are really as immutable as the laws of gravity.
INVESTIGATE: So then just as part of thinking outside the square, your inquiry might wind up recommending a real overhaul in the way we do things in this country, and get to keep more money in the first place?
BISHOP: Well I’m certainly not going to predict what the outcomes will be. But there is more than one way to give money back to people. One way is to collect less money in the first place, through tax cuts, another way is through tax deductions, another is through rebates. And we’re going to have a 30% rebate on child care expenses in approved places. We have given the birth of a new child $3,000 – which is giving people more of their own money back.
INVESTIGATE: Well of course the $3,000 is great for new parents, but it’s a one-off, and they’re not getting that money back every year.
BISHOP: There is also the $600 per child, which is better than nothing…
INVESTIGATE: So with the idea of bringing people into the home, you’d have to obviously develop some sort of new accreditation system I presume? How would that work? I could imagine there would be a real danger of creating a whole new bureaucracy around this.
BISHOP: One thing – and these are all things we have to explore – we have to explore withholding tax, and getting these carers a tax file number, and getting them into the system. You know, when I speak to large groups of people and say hands up anyone who knows someone who pays for these sorts of tax in cash, well, forests of hands go up. It’s in the black economy, and it’s money that could be captured. But it’s just one of the things we’re thinking about.
INVESTIGATE: What are some of these other ideas that we might be seeing down the track out of this inquiry? This is, after all, the number one issue these days it seems.
BISHOP: Absolutely, there are some firms that have crèches, and there’s Family Tax Benefit, and we’ll talk about that. So there are just a lot of things to be discussed. And I think the inquiry gives us the opportunity – because so many areas have been discussed in so many unconnected ways – to bring it all together and connect up the dots.
INVESTIGATE: The thing with all these inquiries is getting from connecting all the dots to getting the government to change the way people do things – and as you say there are ways to change opportunities, to change the economic incentive, but how do you change the social attitudes around things such as having children in your twenties, when it’s safer and easier to do so?
BISHOP: Well of course, everything’s moved up, hasn’t it? I mean, forty is the new thirty; thirty is the new twenty. We’re living longer. We’ve got more time. But the biological clock hasn’t moved, of course…
INVESTIGATE: The whole problem of women who say, “oops, I forgot to have a baby” – is your inquiry going to look at ways to change attitudes and remind people that no matter what life expectancies are at 35 your fertility is declining and you need to be seriously thinking about the order in which you do things?
BISHOP: Really our concern is, what are the barriers that make people think “it’s not for me”, or “maybe I would like to but I’ll only have one”? What are the barriers? We want to hear from women. We want to hear from employers, we want to hear about the impact of the return of women to the workforce and of women with tremendous skills being able to be mothers and wives without being a supermum. Some people talk about the myth of the supermum: it’s reality. So that’s what we’re starting out looking at. Then we will look at recommendations from that for public policy.
We’ve seen tremendous changes in the culture in the last thirty years. In the ‘80s we had a government that was encouraging people to leave the workforce at 55 – they simply had not done the forward projections. Anybody who had done the forward work would’ve known that was nuts: that they couldn’t afford to live the good life when they were only halfway through it. We had the situation where legislation was brought in changing the divorce laws in the ‘70s; that was a tremendous change in the culture. So cultural change has been fermenting for the last thirty years. And in the last twenty years there has been quite a tremendous shift. What we’re looking at is, how can we have good public policy?
That means people can have good fulfilling lives, and that involves having a family and having children. What are the impediments that people feel? What are the constraints? What are the things that make people think, “no, it’s not for me”?
What are those things, and what do we need to do in terms of good public policy – tax, providing services people. That is the question.
FAMILY SECRET: Apr 05, AU Edition
Untold tens of thousands of women terminate their pregnancies every year in Australia. Thousands of others, desperate for a child of their own, undergo IVF and other painful and expensive fertility treatments. And, just to make things more interesting, somewhere around 20,000 kids are sitting in Australian foster homes right this moment, many of them craving a permanent, loving family to truly call their own.In between these stark realities stands adoption: an issue that, despite recent publicity surrounding it, most Australians leave in the “too hard” basket. Investigate editor JAMES MORROW sorts out the myths from realities and looks at why the adoption option deserves a second look
The first thing many strangers say when they meet Christine* and her five-year-old daughter is, “she looks
just like you”. Indeed, mother and daughter do share the same skin tone and chiseled European features.
The only thing they don’t share is DNA: Christine had ovarian cancer when she was 19, had both ovaries removed, and although grateful to be alive was left unable to have children of her own. And so, like a small number of Australians, Christine and her husband went down the long, sometimes expensive, and often frustrating path of adopting a baby in this country.
As highlighted by the surprise reunion earlier this year between Health Minister Tony Abbott and the son his girlfriend gave up for adoption when he was 19, adoption was once a routine practice in this country. But for a variety of reasons – increased access to abortion, more government assistance for single mothers, political concerns about “stolen generations”, and a loss of stigma around single motherhood among them – adoption has slowly but surely gone out of favour in this country.
In fact, there are now more babies adopted from overseas in Australia than actual Australian-born children placed as adoptive children in local homes. In 2003-04, the latest years for which figures are available, just 73 Australian-born children were adopted, down from 78 in the 2002-03 reporting period – continuing a trend that has been spiraling downwards for nearly three decades.
By way of comparison, in 1980-81, nearly twenty times that many local children (1,388 to be exact) were placed in adoptive homes.
Yet despite the much-discussed Australian fertility crisis – our 1.75 child-per-woman rate is hardly enough to keep the population steady – on the one hand and the vast number of children living in foster or “out-of-home” care on the other (more than 20,000 kids at any given time and growing, according to the latest numbers from the Australian Institute for Family Studies), adoption continues to remain on the sidelines of the family planning agenda.
Part of the reason for this is the time, effort and money involved in adopting a child – though, to be sure, many fertility treatments can also take years and run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Rules, procedures and costs vary from state to state and agency to agency, but $5,000 is a good starting point for any in-country adoption, with overseas adoptions likely to run to $20,000 to $40,000 or more, especially once plane tickets, accommodation, and other travel-related expenses are factored in. And money is no guarantee of getting a child, either: even qualified parents have been known to wait five, six, seven years or more before being allowed to take home a new member of their family, though two to three years seems the norm. “Adoptions are made so very carefully,” says Jane West, a spokesperson for Anglicare Adoption Services in Sydney.
Beyond being able to afford the cost (fees are waived forspecial-needs adoptions, says West), typically couples need to be between the ages of 21 and 45, have been married for three years (though some agencies accept de facto partners and singles) and be Australian citizens. Much of the expense comes from the training, background and reference checks and medical screens which are all performed. Once these steps are completed, the lucky couple is then put in a pool of applicants with no guarantee that they will ever be chosen.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the equation, West points out that when a child is placed for adoption, his or her birth mother is given extensive counseling (as is the father, if he can be located) – a far cry from the bad old days when young mothers had to give up their children literally without so much as a second look. Birth mothers are given a selection of profiles of potential adoptive families to choose from, and have final say over with whom their child is placed.
“We had never really had any plans to adopt when we got married,” says Christine, who says that she had been thinking about the idea for a while when, one night, she turned to her husband in bed and said, “what do you think about adopting a child?” To her surprise, he thought that was a great idea, and before they knew it the couple from Sydney’s northern suburbs were taking the first steps into the maze of NSW’s adoption regime.
When they started the process in 1998, they had planned to go to Romania to find a child because they were under the belief, subtly encouraged by social workers, that there were simply no children available to adopt in Australia. And Christine and her husband were fine with that idea; as she says, “we figured that we’d be doing the right thing by giving a baby who needed one a home, the baby would be happy, we’d be happy and, well, everyone would be happy!”
But the more they researched it and found out that it was actually possible, the more they became convinced that they wanted to adopt a child born in this country – though Christine admits that initially she was scared off by the whole process of “open adoption”, which allows for contact between the birth mother and her offspring. (Indeed, the ongoing rights and feelings of the birth mother are one reason why Christine’s family has asked for anonymity).
“At first, I have to admit, it was really difficult from my perspective. It was like the changing of the guard: one family is accepting this new responsibility, and seeing the woman who gave birth to your child is probably the most difficult part of the whole adoption process,” she says.
In fact, when Christine and her husband initially filed their applications, they said that they were not keen on having contact with
the birth family, though they were encouraged when a DoCS social worker told them that, paradoxically, “the families who say they want the least contact often turn out to be the best candidates for open adoption”.
Even though it was initially difficult (her daughter sees her birth mother twice a year: once around her birthday, and once around Christmastime), Christine says it has actually been a blessing in disguise. “For my daughter, I think she’ll benefit from the contact,” she says. “And I know from my circle of friends who adopted from overseas that we are lucky to have this contact. In the beginning, yeah, it was extra stress, but now five years down the track I think it’s fantastic.” One feature Christine is especially keen on is the fact that her daughter has a real sense of where she comes from: “She knows her story, she knows everything, but it doesn’t really come up much. It’s just how it is. For the most part it’s been really positive.”
While Christine’s story has had a happy ending, she and others who have been intimately involved with adoption in Australia are concerned that, with so many children in need, far too many are being shuttled back and forth from foster homes to unsuitable and abusive family situations and back again – hurting their abilities to form trusting bonds with anyone, and creating thousands upon thousands of adults who will, in all likelihood, have repeated run-ins with the law or simply become wards of the state. A recent study by the CREATE Foundation, an advocacy group for children in state care, confirms that that is just what is happening, with those in foster care reporting that they are missing school, are victims of bullying, have trouble making and keeping friends, and are subject to everything from decreased educational aspirations to emotional instability and violence.
The head of the NSW Adoptive Parents Association, who, like Christine, has concerns for her privacy and that of her adoptive child’s birth mother and thus asks that her last name not be used, is a woman called Sonia. She recalls going to an Adelaide conference on adoption in 2004. Sitting in the audience amongst a thousand other delegates, she heard that there were many children in various state foster care systems who had gone through eleven or more placements in the space of just a few years – numbers confirmed by CREATE. According to Sonia, there is a golden opportunity here to connect at least some of these children up with parents wishing to adopt, and she believes the government ought to set some sort of time limit – even just a loose one – stating that after a certain amount of time in foster care, a child should be eligible to go into the adoption pool.
“Surely adopting would be more appropriate than long-term fostering”, she says. “We have learned from the stolen generation, and we’ve learned from the days when we forced adoption on girls when there wasn’t any other option, but since we don’t have that social structure anymore where women are forced into doing something they don’t want to do, why can’t we do something about it?”, she asks. “If a child has to spend, say, a year in foster care while some issues are sorted out, that’s one thing. But if we see that a child is going back and forth from foster home to birth parent and then back out again to some other foster home, there has to be a point at which we say, enough is enough?”
Having children is one of the most emotional and important issues to face Australians, both as individuals and as a nation. Without enough young people who have been raised up to be solid, productive citizens, fifty years from now the country will find itself in the same position as contemporary Western Europe.
There, an aging population which is incapable of replacing itself has been forced to make what now looks like a devil’s bargain with various increasingly hostile immigrant groups in order to keep their leaky welfare state economies afloat. While this sort of situation is unlikely to occur here – for one thing, Australia is generally a lot better at assimilating new migrants – the fact remains, we’re not raising enough kids to keep our economy growing at the sort of clip that has, until recently, been standard operating procedure.
So where does adoption fit in? Certainly, it takes a very special sort of person to decide to go through filling out the forms, sitting through the interviews, and writing the cheques that go along with becoming an adoptive parent. And, on the other hand, it also takes a very special kind of person to recognize that, under their particular circumstances, their child might be better off being placed with another family. All anecdotal indicators suggest that there are large numbers of parents who would consider adopting children if they thought that the process was easier and that there were more Australian-born kids who not only needed permanent homes, but were eligible for them as well. (Christine recalls that in a moment of candour, a DoCS social worker – who was later happily proved wrong – told her “there are no healthy babies out there for adoption”, an attitude which surely causes plenty of prospective parents to chuck in the towel before they even begin).
There are many things that need to happen before adoption is thought of as more than just a pricey and rare special offering on Australians’ menu of reproductive choices. Although Parliament has just undertaken an inquiry into international adoptions chaired by Bronwyn Bishop, MP (see interview, p. 42), something ought to be done on a federal level to streamline the domestic adoption process and streamline the chaotic maze of regulations that go from state to state. Part of this should include a look at allowing private adoptions, a process that has worked successfully for years in the United States to put couples in touch with women who want to adopt out a child.
Furthermore, too, cultural attitudes must shift, and concerns about repeating the mistakes of the past must eventually subside if they get in the way of doing good in the future. The number of terminations and children in foster care on the one hand and, on the other, the number of couples going through difficult infertility treatments shows that there are lots of parents who want children but can’t have them – and vice versa – in Australia.
* Not her real name; due to privacy concerns and Australia’s open adoption regime which keeps birth parents involved in their children’s lives, all the adoptive parents contacted by Investigate and named in this article have asked to remain anonymous.
DIARY OF A CABBIE: Apr 05, AU Edition
Two different fares prove the point that Sydney’s streets can always be dangerous – especially at night
Around 9pm two young blokes in shorts, singlets and barefeet flagged me down on a residential street in Coogee. One had an old fella propped up against a fence. The other opened the cab door and said, ‘Mate, this gentleman has fallen over and hit his head - would you mind taking him home?’ ‘Yeah, righto’, I replied, thinking he was drunk.
In fact he could barely move due to a deformed leg. He also carried a shortened left arm tucked tightly into the body, with a contorted claw fist. The young fellas helped him to the cab, carefully lifting each foot.
‘He’s got money in his wallet’, the Samaritans said, ‘and his address is __ _____ Street. You got that?’. ‘Yeah’, I told them, ‘I’ll get him home’. From then on it felt like a mercy trip. The man was well over 70 years old, in shock and disorientated.
Slowly he came around, checking his pockets and patting the back of his head. ‘You sure you don’t want to go for a check-up at Saint Vincent’s?’, I asked. ‘I’ll be alright’, he said. ‘Just take me home’.
Within fifteen minutes, he freshened up enough to demand we pull over. ‘But you don’t live here’, I said, but he insisted. What could I do? As he was conscious enough to pay the fare, I hopped out and went around to help him. ‘Mate, this ain’t home! What are you getting out here for?’
Eventually he agreed he was in the wrong street.
Climbing back in the cab I drove to his address a few blocks away. We stopped outside a shabby unlit boarding house opposite the Hard Rock Café. As I helped him out onto his feet, my spotlight bathed the back of his head. It was covered in wispy strands of snowy hair, half covered in dried blood. ‘Jeez, mate’, I said, ‘you’ve given your noggin a real crack. There’s a cut and some blood there’.
Despite his proud assurances, I grabbed him under his good arm and we made our way up the dozen steps of his boarding house, gingerly dragging his gammy leg. After fishing around for his key, he opened the door to a gritty darkened corridor. There was no one there for him. But he point-blank refused any further help beyond the door, and thanked me in a strong dignified voice. Five minutes later I returned and drove past to see a light on in the unit directly opposite the front door.
A good result, I thought, and with luck a community nurse will come around and clean up the wound.
Speaking of wounds, in an amazing coincidence a few hours later, I was hailed in the very same block by a tall, barrel-chested bloke, around 30, wearing a sleeveless muscle shirt. I pinned him for a gym jockey. His left arm was heavily wrapped in bandages from the hand to above the elbow. Climbing in he said, ‘It’s just a short trip up to
Oxford Street. My arm’s throbbing too much to walk’.
‘What happened to you?’, I asked. ‘Mate’, he replied, ‘did you read about an attack early last Saturday morning? Back there on William and Bourke Street?’ This was the Ferrari dealer corner, a notorious night-time haunt of hookers and pimps.
According to my passenger, he and his girlfriend were approached by two Persian males and asked for a cigarette. The request was declined, unambiguously. One of the males then allegedly produced a machete and proceeded to attack my passenger about the head.
In defending himself my passenger raised his left forearm and sustained numerous gashes from contact with the blade. These required some 150 stitches to close. Plus he lost 1½ litres of blood.
After resisting the initial attack, he was able to disarm and ‘subdue’ the assailant, whose mate ran off. Five days later, the assailant remains in hospital, facing a possible 20-year jail term.
And he didn’t even get the cigarette. Dope.
Read more of Adrian the Cabbie at www.cablog.com.au
MUSIC: Apr 05, AU Edition
Chemical Brothers’ new dance album starts out slow,
plus, it’s a spice world – we’re still living in it
“Free Me”, 19
Does the world really need a new Spice Girls? Of course! Then thank the “reality” TV gods for Girls Aloud, five saucy femmes brought together in 2002 by the British show Popstars: The Rivals. Their second album, What Will the Neighbours Say? is everything prefab pop should be: fun, cheesy and, of course, maddeningly infectious. Songs such as “The Show” and “Thank Me Daddy” channel the giddiness of teen-age lust and rebellion through sleek, jittery dance beats. The cover of the Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand by You” is pure slow-dance-at-the-prom schlock.
As they yearn for the same bad boys they insult for playing too rough, Girls Aloud exude PG-rated sexiness and grade-school feminism – an irresistible combination, as anyone who ever sang along to “Wannabe” knows.
What the world doesn’t need is the old Spice Girls, if Free Me, the second solo album by ex - “Baby Spice” Emma Bunton, is any indication.
Seemingly aiming for a more “mature” audience, Bunton coos wispy pledges of love over breezy soft pop that’s as pleasant as an afternoon spent sunbathing on the beach, and just as boring. The gently pulsating “Maybe” and “Breathing,” as well as her cover of Marcos Valle’s “Crickets Sing for Anamaria,” indicate that Bunton and her collaborators have been listening to a lot of bossa nova, but her expressionless voice makes you yearn for Astrud Gilberto. It all sounds flat, lifeless, and in desperate need of – dare I say it? – spice.
Reviewed by Amy Phillips
The Chemical Brothers
“Push the Button”, Astralwerks
It’s hard work to stay at the top of a field as mercilessly mutating as dance music. And “Galvanize,” the first track on the Chemical Brothers’ fifth full-length, suggests that, eight years after their mainstream breakthrough, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons might finally be ready for the cut-out bin.
“A Tribe Called Quest’s Q Tip” delivers a dull, witless rap over a relentlessly repetitive 6-minute big-beat groove that fails to get the party started.
So skip it. And don’t worry: They may not be innovating anymore, but the Brothers still know how to work it out. Because starting with “The Boxer,” a stuttering groove with vocals by Tim Burgess of Charlatans U.K., and the thumping “Believe,” with Kele Okereke of Bloc Party, Rowlands and Simons get back on track.
Stepping into the role usually reserved for Beth Orton, Anna-Lynne Williams does the ethereal female vocal turn on “Hold Tight London,” which starts in the chill-out room, then makes its move to the dance floor.
The Brothers would do well to note that Button’s finest creation, the elegantly paced closer, “Surface to Air,” takes care of its trippy, ecstatic business without the distraction of a guest vocalist.
Reviewed by Dan DeLuca
MOVIES: Apr 05, AU Edition
CHILI PALMER’S COOL
But two other offerings this month prove that heroin and histrionic overacting aren’t
Release: March 10, 2005
I hate sequels.” That’s John Travolta’s first line in this sequel to Get Shorty. So immediately Be Cool lets audiences know it’s not taking itself too seriously. I felt like I was in on the joke, and the joke is so good the sequel is better than the original.Ten years ago in Get Shorty, John Travolta’s character, Chili Palmer, was a hip gangster trying to make it in the movie industry. Now, in Be Cool, he’s trying to muscle his way into the music business. There’s a young starlet trying to get her big break, nasty music moguls and the Russian mob. You know – the usual. But in Be Cool the plot isn’t as important as the all-star ensemble cast.
Now I need to come clean about something: when I was a younger I wanted to marry John Travolta. He’s just so, well, cool. Granted, I had to forgive him for Michael and Battlefield Earth, but when he was in Grease and Pulp Fiction he made my knees weak. And he’s back to his coolest as Chili Palmer in Be Cool. He’s suave, he’s sexy, and he’s unflappable. Matter of fact, I still want to marry him.
Then there’s Vince Vaughn’s stand-out role as Raji, a white-bread music rep who wants to be a “playa”. It’s hysterical to see such a honky white character like Raji spouting hip-hop lines like, “that sh*t was tight, gangsta!” It’s so wrong it’s right.
Uma Thurman is the weak link in the movie. She plays Edie, the sexy CEO of a failing indie record label and Chili’s love interest. Uma is beautiful but, alas, she can’t act. She really should be used as a supporting actress rather than a lead.
On the other hand, one of the best castings is WWF’s The Rock as Raji’s gay bodyguard. He’s constantly taking the piss out of himself – even slagging off his signature wrestling glower (one raised
eyebrow). His comedic timing is spot on and my favourite scene involves him reciting a monologue from teen cheerleading movie Bring It On. The Rock rocks.
But wait: there’s more. Cedric the Entertainer plays Sin LaSalle, an upper-middle-class music producer who’s not afraid to use muscle to get his songs played. Andre Benjamin (who most people would know as Andre 3000 of Outkast) makes a fabulous acting debut as Dabu, a dim but trigger-happy gangster. Harvey Keitel is a music company executive with no rhythm. Danny DeVito has a cameo with Anna Nicole Smith that is cringe-worthy but funny. Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler plays himself and is a natural.
Think Pulp Fiction with less violence, more gags and an equally funky soundtrack. Cool.
Released: March 17, 2005
In Being Julia, all the world’s a stage and Annette Benning’s over-acting on it. Now don’t get me wrong: I loved Annette in American Beauty and The Grifters. I know she’s won a swag of awards for this film. But really… she’s trying so hard in Being Julia that she makes Jim Carey look subtle.
The problem is Annette’s character is so damn repellent. Julia Lambert is an ageing diva of the London stage in the 1930s. She’s at the peak of her career yet she’s bored. So she’s prone to histrionics. It’s hard to care for a woman who decides the spark she needs is to have an affair with a younger man but then is devastated when she finds out not only is her husband cheating on her but her lover is too. She’s either melodramatic, egocentric, overbearing or overwrought with nothing in between. Her manic laughter grates even more when hideous wailing follows it as the spotlight travels past her.
The support roles in the film are more refined. Jeremy Irons is restrained as her long-suffering husband and manager Michael Gosselyn. Miriam Margolyes is fabulous and funny as theatre owner Dolly, a frustrated lesbian desperate to bed her lead actress. And I had to side with Juliet Stevenson who plays Julia’s straight talking yet likeable dresser, Evie.
Basically everyone is more likeable than Julia.
I can understand comparisons between Being Julia and All About Eve. Both lead characters are egotistical actresses who blur their public and private lives. But the comparisons should only remind you why All About Eve is a classic and Being Julia will be a $2 weekly DVD in a flash of an eye.
Maria Full of Grace
Released: March 26, 2005
Maria Full of Grace is a spinach film. That is, you know it’s good for you but you don’t really like it. The story revolves around a seventeen-year-old Colombian girl who thinks the only way to escape her miserable life is to become a drug mule. The film is a drama that feels more like a documentary. It’s shot with a sometimes-nauseating handheld camera style making the entire film feel grainy, dirty and real.
The lead role is played by astonishing newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno and, basically, she is Maria. I believed she’s desperate to escape her demeaning job of de-thorning roses at a flower farm where she earns about $2000 a year. I believed she’s feisty and intelligent. I believed her downtrodden family and friends stifle her. And I believed she’d swallow heroin for a round trip to New York and an easy five grand.
But it’s not easy. That’s the point. This film does nothing to glamorize drug smuggling. The drug dealers aren’t sexy, powerful ‘bling bling’ characters; they are slack-jawed mouth-breathers who are as bored with their jobs as Maria was with the roses.
The scene where Maria swallows the heroin pellets will test the strongest gag reflex. They are about the size of a thumb, coated in Vaseline and washed down with some clear soup. When Maria got down her first pellet, I gagged. By the time she had swallowed 62, I nearly passed out.
The film is shot in Spanish with English sub-titles but there is so little dialogue you could watch it with the sound down. The emotions and fears that cross Maria’s face speak volumes. It’s a basic story of survival.
First time director and writer Joshua Marston has captured the ugliness of drug smuggling with grace.
You’ll feel uncomfortable watching Maria Full of Heroin.
BOOKS: Apr 05. AU Edition
DON’T GIVE IT A THOUGHT!
Business guru Malcolm Gladwell’s latest offering says, yes, you can choose a book by its cover
BLINK: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
By Malcolm Gladwell
Penguin Australia 2005. Paperback, $32.95. ISBN: 071399844X
Malcolm Gladwell has a gift for taking obscure scientific experiments and tying them in to much broader ideas. Take, for example, Ap Dijksterhuis and Ad van Knippenberg’s study which took two groups of equallymatched students playing Trivial Pursuit. Members of the first group were told to take five minutes before the game started and think about what it meant to be a professor. The second group were to think about football hooligans. The first group faired a lot better. They were in a “smart” frame of mind. This is just one of the many investigations Gladwell covers. He analyses the Pepsi challenge, the Amadou Diallo shooting in New York, speed-dating, the “love lab” and the DNA of marriage, height-salary ratios, Morse code, involuntary facial expressions and Pentagon war games. It’s fascinating reading. But do all these disparate parts meld to form a cohesive theory? I’m not so sure.
The problem is that the publishers are pitching Blink as a self-help title. The best-seller list is littered with diet books and money-making manifestos – French Women Don’t Get Fat; He’s Just Not That Into You; Rich Dad, Poor Dad – which explains what the publishers are up to. But business guru Gladwell’s intentions are a bit more fuzzy.
On the surface Blink is about trusting your gut – hardly a new concept, but the author is such a science-based individual that the book reads as if it’s all news to him. Anyone who’s read his internationally acclaimed first book The Tipping Point will have pretty high expectations for this new release – expectations which, as it turns out, have the power to colour our judgement in either good or evil ways.
The sub-title, “The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”, is misleading if you read the word power as solely a positive thing. It’s true that much of Blink is taken up with impressive examples of snap decisions that make people heaps of money or save lots of lives. An equal portion is devoted to those subconscious decisions produced without the rational mind even realising a decision has already been made. First impressions are powerful, but not necessarily in a good way. Blink proves how we justify our instinctive judgements with a logic entirely unrelated to them – thereby validating prejudices we didn’t even know we had.
“Thin-slicing” is a key term in Blink and it refers to “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behaviour based on very narrow slices of experience”. For example, when we have to make sense of something very quickly – in a crisis, say, or when interviewing candidates for a job.
Gladwell introduces us to psychologist Samuel Gosling, who has shown how effective thin-slicing can be when judging people’s personalities. His experiment involved getting eighty college students to complete a personality questionnaire about themselves. He then had close friends of the eighty students fill out the same questionnaire. Next Golsing repeated the process with complete strangers who had never even met the people they were judging – all they saw were their dorm rooms, and were given 15 minutes to look around with a clipboard. The results of the experiment are quite surprising: While the close friends were better at measuring how agreeable and extroverted the subject was, on the whole, the complete strangers came out on top. Their conclusions were far more accurate in all other regards, like predicting emotional stability, conscientiousness, and openness to new experiences.
Concludes Gladwell, “Forget the endless ‘getting to know you’ meetings and lunches, then. If you want to get a good idea of whether I’d make a good employee, drop by my house one day and take a look around”.
For me, there’s an absurd side to scientists proving the existence of instinct. Gathering reams of data to pinpoint and explain intuitive responses – it borders on the ridiculous. Granted, the human mind is naturally driven to explain the inexplicable, but to take this further and promote the supremacy of snap decisions over logical thinking is like saying that water is more important than food. We live in a technological age obsessed with data, but have we forgotten so much that we need to rediscover it all again?
Over-thinking has always been frowned upon. While the research in Blink is highly original, the concept isn’t:
In the words of the ancients one should make decisions in the space of seven breaths. Lord Takanobu said, “If discrimination is long, it will spoil.” Lord Naoshige said, “When matters are done leisurely, seven out of ten will turn out badly.” – Hagakure, The Book of the Samurai, written in the 1700s.
Conceding that Blink is preaching to the converted in my case, the focus shifts away from the book’s actual subject toward the biographies of the remarkable Americans collected for the project. We meet the owl-like professor and the smart cop; there’s the fireman who thinks he has ESP and the virtuoso car salesman. Gladwell paints beautiful portraits of these people and many more; he really is the Rembrandt of journalism in this regard. Together they form a brave and intelligent representation of American thought and endeavour.
So, is Blink lamb dressed as mutton or mutton dressed as lamb? Enlisting the Blink philosophy of utilising positive reinforcement to override subconscious prejudice, (perversely) I choose to read Blink as an antidote to the anti-American sentiment that currently plagues us. Medicine like this I’d happily take every day.
THE PATRON SAINT OF EELS
By Gregory Day
Sydney. Picador 2005. $22.00 ISBN: 0330421581
Do not be afraid of the saints of the new millenium. Fra Ionio, Patron Saint of Eels, seeks only to protect the eels and remind us of the magic of nature. The Patron Saint of Eels is set in the southern Victorian town of Mangowak, where the bush meets the sea. Noel Lee, an artist, is as concerned about tourism as the rest of the locals. When heavy rain floods the neighbouring swamp, hundreds of eels overflow into the ditches that surround Noel’s loft. The immortal Fra Ionio materializes – deus ex machina – to set them free.
The Patron Saint of Eels is a contemporary fable. Traditionally, fables carry wisdom through the ages. They are cautionary tales that tell us what we ought to do. Unlike fairy tales that give us hope and promise happy endings, fables are not concerned with wish-fulfilment. They are overtly moralistic and use scare tactics to prevent us from doing the wrong thing. Contemporary fables are losing their dark side, it seems.
The master of this genre, Italo Calvino, himself wrote a fable about eels. “The Cloven Youth” tells the story of a boy who is cut in half by a witch. This half-boy grows up, with half a head, half a body and just one leg. Out fishing one day he catches an eel and the eel says, “Let me go, and whatever you wish will be granted, for the sake of the little eel.” The boy lets the eel go. Then one day, as he is passing the palace, a princess on her balcony laughs at him. To punish her for laughing at his misfortunate appearance, he wishes that she were pregnant with his child. A baby is born and the princess is abused by her parents for the disgrace. When it is discovered that the cloven youth is the baby’s father, all three are trapped in barrel sent to the bottom of the ocean. The youth wishes again and for the sake of the little eel, they are safe on dry land with a banquet
before them and a palace all of their own.
The cloven youth, who is no longer cloven but handsome and whole, uses the little eel’s magic once more to punish the king but the princess pleads mercy for her father and he relents. “The king took them back to his palace where they all lived in harmony from then on. Unless they have died in the meantime, they may well be there to this day.”
Calvino’s fables are deadly – by which I mean phenomenally good. Gregory Day’s new work is more reminiscent of Tim Winton’s fable, Blueback. They are both set in small towns threatened by gentrification where nature is the maiden in need of protection. The characters are the keepers of the land and salvation lies in understanding and enjoying that responsibility. Day’s Nannette is wiry and freckled to Winton’s Dora, tough and sun-streaked. Both women like to keep to themselves. Despite their similarlities, these are very different books. The Patron Saint of Eels is in your face. Blueback is far more subtle.
NEVER LET ME GO
By Kazuo Ishiguro
London. Faber and Faber 2005. $29.95. ISBN: 0571224121.
The other day I saw a toddler wearing a t-shirt saying “Ruining It For Everybody”. Not wanting to wear a shirt like that myself, I’m in a difficult position reviewing Kazou Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. It’s been five years since his last book came out, so the new one is eagerly awaited and now I’m afraid I’m going to hold out on you too. It’s lucky that it’s not just about ‘that’ anyway; as with all of Ishiguro’s books (think Stevens, the troubled butler in The Remains of the Day), there is always more going on than meets the eye.
So here I am, talkin’ loud and saying nothing, while Ishiguro does the exact opposite. When discussing his work I feel the same obligation to stay silent that one might feel in a library. His writing is quiet. His themes, on the other hand, are radical and universal – loud, that is. Never Let Me Go deals with love and friendship; it scopes out death. This uncanny mix of softly spoken clout has impressed the critics to the point where every one of his books has either won or been nominated for a major award. Look at how Ishiguro makes an insightful indictment of international defence and security policies, without going anywhere near the subject of current affairs. These are primary school children who think someone is plotting to abduct their beloved teacher.
“When it came down to it, though, I don’t recall our taking many practical steps towards defending Miss Geraldine; our activities always revolved around gathering more and more evidence concerning the plot itself. For some reason, we were satisfied this would keep any immediate danger at bay.”
How elegant and understated is that! Talk about a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
There are surprisingly few big-game writers that take it all on. Ishiguro’s style is both contemporary and classic. And he’s not afraid of fiction. Lately there’s been an obsession with keeping it “real”, which often results in books that fail to strike any chord at all. This book strikes so many chords you’ll end up feeling like a banjo in West Virginia.
To be honest, Never Let Me Go is really creepy. I didn’t actually enjoy reading it – though I’d recommend it highly. Ishiguro always opts for the first person narrative and he’s done so again this time. In interviews he will often discuss his somewhat unique method of auditioning characters for the lead role, spending a long time viewing the situation from one perspective then switching to another. Of course this means that by the time the book is published, we are only given access to the inside of one head. This is why I read the first page of Never Let Me Go with a sinking heart. I didn’t want to know this person who was talking to me and I didn’t want to hear her story either. The sense of something being very wrong here is immediately pervasive.
I’ve made this all sound like some big mystery and it’s not. It’s just that some things are better approached fresh, with as little prior knowledge as possible. It’s a shame I don’t want to say what it is about because that’s probably the reason a lot of people will buy it. Never Let Me Go is very topical, very now; let’s just hope it’s not very soon.
Reviewed by MICHAEL MORRISSEY:
GOING NATIVE: Living in the Australian Environment
By Michael Archer and Bob Beale
Hodder Headline Australia 2004. $35.
Awakening of ecological consciousness - and conscience - can occur at any time. A book, documentary, even a photograph can do the trick. However, I know of few books of this type that are as eloquent, well-documented and, in very sense of the word, down to earth, as this one. Its range is wide-sweeping, immense - from geology to palaeontology, from firestorms to educating children about the unique animals of their own country.
When the authors asked forty children to name ten animals that first came to mind - “no prompts, no preludes, no explanations” - all named cats and dogs and 85 per cent mentioned cows, horses, rats, elephants, giraffes, zebras, tigers, rhinoceroses and lions. Only 15 per cent named any Australian animal. Unsurprisingly, kangaroos were among the most mentioned. Koalas got a look in. With children’s animal perceptions firmly focused on African exotics and imported farm animals, what hope is there for full local ecological consciousness, for heart-felt caring for Australia’s numerous unique species?
In a reversal of cat and dog domination - and moggies come under heavy attack for various nasty diseases they can carry - Archer suggests buddying up with a quoll which, by his account, has all the best aspects of canine and feline qualities combined. It is clean like a cat, affectionate like a dog (even when not hungry!). Alas, Archer’s human-loving quoll bit a cane toad and died - legitimate reason for Archer to bring some heavy artillery to bear on this poisonous and ugly import. Mysteriously, the quoll appears to have two penises (penii?), or what Archer calls “a second erectile structure” - function as yet unknown. If their pro-pet theories seem a trifle cute, how about this (alas, too late) practical notion - if thylacines had been kept as pets, they might still be with us. Quolls and thylacines aside, the authors are no animal rights sentimentalists and strongly urge for the culling of kangaroos - “tasty, free-range, low-fat, low-cholesterol, disease-free, high-protein and environmentally superior” - for human consumption. The departure from the nineteenth century love of local animal tucker was of course a product of urbanisation.
This is a serious and sobering (though humour-seasoned) book which pleads for a radical change in the Australian agricultural sphere. Basically, a shift from sheep to trees. One of the main reasons for this suggestion - more than a suggestion - is the emergence of vast amounts of salty groundwater. A strategy to compensate for the resulting desertification is the hardy saltbush which thrives on salinity that will reduce less tough vegetation to bare ground. In the Bultarra region where merino farmer Robin Meares spearheaded the change, some 7.5 million plants have been earthed.
The authors deftly reel off summaries of all major extinctions by asteroid and meteor impact. The text in general is fact-studded with both actual and estimated figures. In contrast to their factual bombardment, the authors also include some vivid imaginary description of homo ergaster meeting kangaroos long before even the most recently extended date of man’s first arrival in Australia - say 100,000 years ago - and a similarly vivid evocation of Miocene forests at Riversleigh where numerous fossilised remains of unknown species of mammals have been found. They also challenge Tim Flannery’s “Blitzkreig Hypothesis” of megafauna extinction and assert that the impact of mining is actually very minimal and controlled whereas agriculture - the major factor in erosion - is not.
While Archer and Beale spare us no gloomy facts they also offer many practical solutions. Unlike the kind of ecological disaster books that only proffer litanies of doom - possibly to scare us into reacting - Going Native offers down to earth hope in the form of kangaroo culling, native grasses, planting saltbush and trees, and so on. This is an inspired and inspiring book that should be “planted” in all schools and libraries.
Hoaxes, Imposture, and Identity Crises in Australian Literature
Edited by Maggie Nolan and Carrie Dawson
University of Queensland Press, $22.50.
Caution: that latest Aborigine-authored novel may have been written by a whitefella; that heart-wrenching tale of racial prejudice, sexist control, arranged marriage, and murder in the name of honour may have been written by a housewife living in the suburbs of a reasonably safe city. Nor is academia safe from hoaxes, trickery, posing, chicanery.
None of this is new. History abounds with literary quackery. Sir John Mandeville’s 14th century Travels are widely considered to have been written by Jean de Bourgogne, a knavish Frenchman with a penchant for a tall tale of lands he had not visited. In Who’s Who, thirteen academics write thirteen essays examining the strategies of literary imposture, of wilful authorial schizophrenia. David Carter writing about Nino Culotta (aka John O’Grady) suggests there are two kinds of hoaxes - the first, which only works as long as it remains undiscovered, and the second which depends on being discovered. Carter observes that most scientific hoaxes belong in the first category. However, “examples of the second kind are `core business’ for the arts and humanities, from the Ern Malley affair to Sokal and Social text”.
The interesting thing about the good-natured (shall we say) mask of O’Grady is that when it was removed a month or so after publication, the truth seemed to boost rather than mar sales.
When the mask cannot be easily lifted, when it sticks too close to the skin, the wearer gets uncomfortable. O’Grady wrote to his son: “I have had Mr Culotta. I am heartily sick of Mr Culotta. There will be no sequel. There will be no `Cop this Lot’” – but of course there was. The moral might be – if the laughing guests like your clown face better than your own plain mug why not enjoy the ride? It can’t have been all bad because They’re a Weird Mob sold more copies than any other Australian novel until Bryce Courtenay came along.
If the case of Nino Culotta/John O’Grady was only an amusing soft shoe ethnic shuffle, the Demidenko-Darville duplicity has justly called forth righteous wrath. Susanna Egan indignantly notes that Darville talked of travelling to the Ukraine when she was 12, where she found her relatives in grinding poverty living in cottages with earth floors. She had been forced to give up her seat on the train to Jewish Communists, her grandfather and other relatives had been murdered by Jewish Communists, et cetera. Clearly, we are in the dark realms of what the intellectuals term imposture – though we could also call it hate-mongering fraud. Whatever one thinks of Darville and her misrepresentations, the scrutiny was prolific – three book studies within a year and countless more articles. In another such case, Binjamin Wilkomirski aka Bruno Dosseker (a Swiss gentile), who claimed to have been a child survivor of Nazi concentration camps, fell under suspicion because he kept shedding tears, whereas genuine survivors like author Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel remained dry-eyed. I keep thinking there is something we should all be learning from these cases but I’m not entirely sure what it is. Perhaps all authors should be subject to a pre-publication gender and ethnicity check (just kidding). From one deception to another, the motives are different. Some want a new and more successful literary career, some (I suspect) want to make their own ordinary life stories more interesting, more exotic than they are. This is an all too human wish to which many of us succumb every time we embellish a story about ourselves.
Being an academic set of texts, this psychological explanation is less fully examined than might have been the case otherwise. We are all wise, though no wiser after all is revealed. When truth wills out, the gaps in the lies seem glaringly obvious.
In the notorious case of Marlo Morgan’s Mutant Messages Down Under it was unearthed there was no “Real People Tribe”, no kidnapping, no voyage in the desert. And of course no one in the relevant area had heard of Morgan. The American term “Down Under” - never used by Antipodeans - should have been a leading clue to its falsity.
Despite this, Cath Ellis notes that the book is required reading in several American universities and an extract appears in a guidebook to Australia. Ms Morgan’s New Age trash fulfils an eternal desire that we all desperately want to be true - the civilised being can be made uncivilised and return to some more idealised primitive state. Lord Greystoke always wants to be Tarzan. It appears, then, that Morgan, by appealing to a mythic-cultural desire, has “succeeded”, while Darville, who told unsavoury ethnic lies, has failed. This collection of essays offers a thoughtful dissection of this intriguing ongoing phenomena, though its scope and analysis could conceivably have gone further: is this imposture peculiar to “developed” countries? Is Australia a world leader in literary deception? Watch this space.
ENDANGERED SPECIES: Apr 05, AU Edition
Redefining the Australian family
She works hard for the money. She works hard at home. He’s burning the candle at both ends, chasing the dollars they desperately need to get ahead in Australia’s big cities. Are they working to live or living to work? And with a swiftly dropping birth rate, are we poised to become a geriatric nation where children are rarely heard or seen? DANIEL DONAHOO begins team coverage with a report on why men are increasingly shying away from parenthood
My colleague shook his head when he heard the news. “Bloody good decision,” he said. “I should have had kids younger.” At 47, he was the father of a seven-year-old and a five-year-old, and was feeling the strain. He told me on more than one occasion that he’d be 63 when his youngest child turned 21. It wasn’t a prospect he was embracing.
I was 23, full of energy and ready to tackle fatherhood head-on.
For both men and women, there are many benefits in having children at a young age. Women are healthy and more fertile. The likelihood of complications in pregnant women over 35 increases dramatically. Men have more strength and energy, and are not yet set in their childless ways. And both genders carry less of the cynicism that the years seem to pile on.
Despite all this, Australian men are helping stall the baby-making process. The average age for first-time dads is 32.5 years: an all-time high. These days, if you are dad in your early 20s, you are on the fringe.
Recent projections suggest we will continue to put off having children. Consequently, fewer Australian couples will end up with kids. The Australian Institute of Family Studies estimates that in 2016, more Australian couples will be without children than with. The birth rate has definitely boarded the down escalator, and the implications could be pronounced.
While the statistics strike out, men of all ages are discovering that becoming a dad is an ambition that is never too early, or late, to pursue. Young dads might be an endangered species, but they would do well to hear the messages from older men who are finding more in fatherhood than they thought was there.
A friend of mine who became a dad at 42 is disappointed he left his run so late. He and his partner won’t be having another child. He now works part-time and shares the care of his daughter, which he says is “the bloody toughest and most rewarding gig” he has ever had. He can understand now why he grew up around so many large Catholic families. “Creating your own family is a feat greater than anything,” he says.
Men these days are often busy establishing careers and embracing singledom. But, for some, stumbling upon fatherhood has made life more fulfilling and shattered all pre-conceptions that having responsibility for a child is something to fear.
I committed to a relationship and having a baby after only knowing my wife for five months. In a society where many men turn and run I decided to stand my ground. By not shirking the responsibility my libido had thrust upon me I suddenly found myself more employable, more capable and tackling responsibilities that the constant delay of singledom had denied me.
Consequently, my life took on new meaning and much greater emotional and financial responsibility. My partner and I turned our $10,000 combined debt, amassed before children, into an eight-acre asset by the time my first son was six months.
Some regard the popularity of delaying fatherhood as a major factor in the decrease of couples with kids. It is an issue documented by Leslie Cannold in her new book, What, No Baby?, which points the finger at men and asks them to consider whether their lack of commitment to equal relationships and shared responsibility is fair on our society.
Cannold wrote recently, “In particular, my research makes clear that while the vast majority of women want to become mothers, their freedom to choose to have children at any particular point is limited by a range of social circumstances and attitudes.”
One of those circumstances appears to be all those things young men believe they ‘should’ do before having kids.
“I want my son to get an education, travel and enjoy himself before he gets married,” one mother told me.
Here, the implication appears to be that marriage and having a family is not an enjoyable experience. Or at least, not as enjoyable as travelling the world.
The fact is that an increasing number of young Australian men are putting off fatherhood. It isn’t surprising when you measure the images of parenting against pop-culture images of the party-hard, single life. The women who adorn Ralph and FHM don’t ask men to settle down.
But some young men are proving that having children young is not the burden it is made out to be. They are choosing responsibility over partying.
As part of my recent research for a forthcoming book, I have been interviewing young dads about their experience of fatherhood. They unanimously agree that it is hard work. But they are living the cliché that the more work you put in, the more rewards follow. They are building upon their own childhood experiences and finding new ways to make family relationships work in the 21st century.
One of those men, Lifon Henderson, has spent his working life as an entertainer, but as a 26-year-old father of two boys he has returned to study to pursue a new career. His wife Barbara Sparks is also studying part-time. They both balance study, work and raising their children in a juggling act that beats anything Lifon does in his
They told me they are looking to be qualified and established in new careers by the time their boys go to school. Having children for them was a grounding experience that brought direction into their lives.
Our society assumes study is something we should do before children. But many stay-at-home mums and dads are making the most of new developments in distance-education, thanks to the Internet and off-campus learning.
Julian and Anna Hetyey are a young professional couple in their mid-20s who are looking forward to the birth of their first child in just a couple of months. They see this as the first step in a move to reject the hectic work culture that currently dominates their lives.
Julian is adjusting his working arrangements as a lawyer to have a better work-life balance, while Anna will stop practicing podiatry and stay at home for the first few years of their child’s life.
Instead of cementing careers and paying off much of their mortgage before they have children, Julian and Anna have decided that having children will bring their lives a perspective it is currently lacking. They are interested in being part of a community first and foremost, instead of a workplace.
As for me, at 27, a big night out is usually a visit to my mum and dad’s. They take care of the kids and my wife and I can kick back and relax. Having children young has meant that my parents are considered young grandparents. Very few of their friends are grandparents.
It is a joy to watch my sons roll around on the floor with my dad, or play in the park with mum when they take the dog for a walk. Yet men who are delaying fatherhood are also delaying their parents’ grandparenthood. The longer it is delayed, the greater the risk to developing those inter-generational relationships.
Interestingly, the delay of parenthood isn’t for the lack of wanting children. A recent study of over 3,000 fertile Australians is proving that more of us want children than we assume, and we want more than one child. According to a recent Australian Institute of Family Studies report, “It’s Not For Lack of Wanting Kids”, a large majority of us aged 20-39 want two or three children.
In the survey men come out looking like they have great family intentions. Those who we would expect to be holding tightly onto their freedom are interested in parenthood. Over 60 percent of single men aged 20-29 ‘definitely want children’, while only 20 percent rule out ever having children. Almost 90 percent of married-but-childless men between 20-39 years indicate they definitely want kids.
So if we want kids, what’s the hold-up?
Men appear to have so many pre-set goals and objectives. There is little imagination or flexibility about the many ways a life can be lived. Many of us are stuck on a set of mantras promoted by marketers and the media: “I want to be secure in my career”; “I want to provide my children with economic security”; “I want to have at least half of my mortgage paid off”.
I never had a five-year plan. But my younger brother does, and so do many of his drinking buddies. And, despite wanting to have children one day, kids never seem to be factored into these five-year plans. If children are not in the plan, what does happen if one comes along? Many young men may be denying themselves a happiness they haven’t considered by boxing themselves into a life that is a series of dot points where family and kids don’t figure.
There is a modern-world life-checklist young men complete
before they move on to the next goal: finish school, check. Go to uni, check. Experiment with drugs, check. Travel overseas, check. Establish a career, check. Find a partner, check. Buy a house, check. Achieve financial security, check...Have children?
But what if one of those items doesn’t materialise? What if you get stalled for a while in finding the right career, or the right person to love?
The statistics suggest this is what is happening. The result is that while Australian men may aspire to have children, they are less likely to. And if they do, they are unlikely to have as many children as
Still, many men are out there challenging the checklist, taking the less-travelled path and becoming dads. These fathers may not stop the birth-rate decline, but they are demonstrating that there are
options out there. And that having kids isn’t the end of the world.
X IN THE SUBURBS: Apr 05, AU Edition
X IN THE SUBURBS
Ecstasy and other party drugs used to be an import-only business. But now, home-grown gangs have figured out the trick to pill-making and are flooding the market with their goods. JAMES MORROW in Sydney and SHAUN DAVIES in Melbourne report on the growing drug industry in our own backyards
March 9, 2005: Federal agents stop a van traveling down the Hume Highway near the Victoria-New South Wales border. After arresting the two men on board – a 39-year-old Sydneysider and a 31-year-old Melburnian – cops find five 44-gallon drums of chemicals that can be used to make MDMA, or ecstasy. That night, armed with search warrants, police sweep through a number of suburbs in Sydney and Melbourne, including Pyrmont – an increasingly trendy and cashed-up inner-city neigbourhood which is also home to Sydney’s Star City Casino – and make several more arrests and seizures.
Amongst the cops’ haul for the evening: “proceeds of crime”,
including a 4WD Porsche Cayenne and a Lamborghini, as well as five more 44-gallon drums of what are known as “precursor chemicals”. According to the Australian Federal Police, “a conservative estimate of the MDMA pills capable of being produced from this amount of precursor is four million tablets, which has an estimated street value of $160 million”. But while the AFP was quick to trumpet this “largest-ever seizure” of precursor chemicals, the bust only scratched the surface of a growing trade in so-called “party drugs”: MDMA (better known as ecstasy), as well as GHB, methamphetamine, the animal tranquilizer ketamine, and a variety of other chemicals that are increasingly popular with Australian youth. According to figures published in 2001 by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, one in five Australians between ages 20 and 29 had tried ecstasy – numbers that experts agree has only gone up in the four years since.
Fast-forward to Melbourne, the following week. On Sunday night of the Labour Day long weekend in Melbourne, the dance floor at Revolver, one of the city’s best-known clubs, is packed with sweaty bodies. It is well past midnight and you’d expect the pulsing electronic music to be driving the crowd into a frenzy. But the atmosphere is actually quite subdued: most dancers are only swinging their arms in time to the beat, and some of them are barely moving their feet at all.
It may be that the crowd is not enjoying the DJ, but an equally likely explanation is that a batch of “smacky” pills has been doing the rounds. A “smacky” pill generally contains some MDMA, but it’s adulterated with another drug, usually ketamine or heroin, which leaves users in a stupor. Contrary to commonly held ideas, not all pills sold as ecstasy drive users to all-night dancing and potentially fatal dehydration.
Some of the drug users in Revolver are easy to spot. One young clubber, dressed in low-slung jeans and a trucker’s cap, has obviously overindulged. He stumbles about the club with a slack jaw and a faraway look in his eyes, disorientated and seemingly unsure of where to put himself. Eventually he collapses on a couch in the corner of the room with his legs splayed out, rolls his head back and stares at the ceiling.
But most of the people who have taken ecstasy are more in control, and to spot them you have to know what to look for. Furious chewing is one clue: ecstasy makes users grind their teeth incessantly, and users chew gum to prevent aching jaw muscles the next morning. Another sure sign is excited hugging and sloppy smiling – ecstasy’s empathetic qualities give users a seemingly uncontrollable urge to tell anyone within earshot just how amazing it is to be alive.
Ecstasy comes on in a rush. About 40 minutes after swallowing a pill, your body and brain are consumed with overwhelming pleasure: this is the strongest part of the trip and users refer to it as “peaking”. After about an hour the intensity of the trip will decrease slightly, although the effects won’t really start to wear off until a good three or four hours later.
The comedown is difficult and many users will take multiple pills over the course of an evening to prolong the rush and put off the inevitable.
Those who use ecstasy regularly agree that in the past six months the market has been flooded with high-quality ecstasy. The pills are purer now, which means longer and better peaks and easier comedowns. Users have become pickier and local drug manufacturers, it seems, have been rushing to meet this demand.
ONE PILL, TWO PILL, RED PILL, TRUE BLUE PILL
The Hume Highway bust, and several others over the past year (none of which have made a dent in supply on the street, incidentally), lends further credence to the theory that ready-made ecstasy is no longer being imported on the scale it once was, and that instead, domestic gangs are now bringing in just the ingredients and manufacturing it themselves. This was hinted at in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency report last year which noted that, “There also have been several large-scale 3,4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), a.k.a. Ecstasy, laboratory seizures in the Sydney and Melbourne metropolitan areas. The chemicals seized at these MDMA laboratories originated from locations throughout Southeast Asia. Australian law enforcement and customs officials are also seizing increasing amounts of sassafras oil being smuggled through various ports-of-entry, such as Sydney and Melbourne. Sassafras oil produces safrole, which can be used as a precursor chemical in the manufacture of MDMA”.
Or, as an ecstasy user calling himself Zaki put it recently, “I think Australia has stepped up to the mark and shown we are not only good at swimming, cricket [and] rugby. We are now among the best in good, clean and therefore harm-minimising MDMA production”.
The amount of harm MDMA does is another question (see
below), but the fact remains that no matter how many busts the police make, ecstasy prices remain stable at around $30 to $40 a hit, and there is never any shortage of supply in the dance clubs of any of the capital cities.
“The market is so big, and we know that there are lots of different ways that pills are getting here”, says Johnboy Davidson. “We’ll see big busts, you know, three million pills or something like that, and still supply won’t be affected.” Davidson is the spokesman for Bluelight, an Australian website that has grown to be the biggest online drugs forum in the world. A public advocate for the principles of harm minimisation, Davidson is careful not to paint himself as a wild-eyed libertarian of the “legalize it” stripe, but rather calls for a more “realistic approach” to drug use in Australia. According to Davidson, the international ecstasy trade began in earnest in the 1990s but, until recently, Australian drug traffickers haven’t had the means to make their own product. “The Golden Triangle states switched over from heroin to methamphetamine production in the ‘90s, and then they switched over to MDMA as well,” he says. “A lot of the supply routes came through Indonesia. There used to be a triangular trade from Europe, across Indonesia, and into Australia, but then it became more smugglers from China or Thailand bringing drugs into Australia via Indonesia. Oddly enough, the trade in Indonesia is run by a lot of African and even Israeli gangsters.”
Today, however, some of the best ecstasy on the market is thought to be home-grown, and in the past six months to eight months, the Australian market has been flooded with high-quality MDMA and other pills. Ecstasy is given street names according to the colour of the pills and the type of logo that is stamped on them: Red and green Mitsubishis (red or green pills with the Mitsubishi automaker’s logo stamped on them), yellow doves, red Rolexes and red Russians have all been popular on the market lately and, according to those who take them, these drugs are more pure than anything they’ve had for years.
For Australian drug traffickers to make their own ecstasy takes both expertise – about equivalent to that of a third-year university chemistry student – and equipment, including precursor chemicals and a pill-pressing machine. It is this second item that, experts say, is one of the hardest and most dangerous tools of the trade to come up with.
“Pill presses are a monitored thing and you can’t buy one without a very good reason…having one is like printing money, and it’s one of those things that can get ripped off as well”, says Davidson, who makes a gun with his fingers and demonstrates what can happen if a rival crew hears about the existence of a pill machine. “Most of them would be only about the size of a washing machine. There was a bust three or four years ago somewhere in a block of flats in inner-city Melbourne where a neighbour complained about a guy who had his clothes-dryer on all night. So the landlord looked in, realised what it was, and told the cops. Then a full production lab was busted”.
So who was behind the Hume Highway bust? Cops are tight-lipped, not wanting to compromise their investigation. But speculation is that with the bust taking place near Wodonga, a small town that is also home to several motorcycle gangs and a crime rate far higher than similarly-sized Australian communities, one crew may have heard about a rival’s shipment and ratted it out to the police. More telling, though, is that the amounts involved show a far greater ability of Australian drug peddlers to acquire the chemicals needed to make their own MDMA, rather than purchasing pills or powder from overseas. Says Davidson, “a tonne of precursors is…an astonishing amount.
We’d only thought people were making small batches, maybe ten to twenty kilograms at a time, but this really gives you an idea of
THE STING IN THE TAIL
With demand so high, it is clear that even with a ten-fold increase in resources, the police would be hard-pressed to make much of a dent in the local market for party. The urgent question thus becomes, are there chickens that will come home to roost from an entire generation’s chemical bender, or is a young person’s going out to a dance club and popping a few pills occasionally no more dangerous than him or her having a really big night at the pub? In the short term, the latter is probably correct: on any given weekend night, far more emergency department admissions will be made as a result of alcohol and the behaviours it inspires than as a result of MDMA or other party drugs.
“Drugs are always going to be a major factor in presentations at emergency departments, both for hyperventilation and dehydration as well as for people who might have had some underlying psychiatric problem”, says Dr. Bob Batey, a clinical advisor at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. “With that said, it’s probably a minority of users who show up. At the moment, except for the people who show up with acute medical consequences – which are often a one-off – we don’t have much long-term data.”
While this may seem to give ecstasy a reason-ably clean bill of health, or at least place it somewhere in the shouldn’t-have-had-that-last-Bundy area of youthful overindulgence, Batey cautions that it’s still early, so the full effects of the drug are still not yet known. And while he says that ecstasy definitely leads to structural changes in the brain and has problems associated with long-term depression, “we need more information before saying anything dogmatic about
Still, “people who say that pure MDMA is harmless are most probably wrong”, says University of Sydney psychpharmacologist Dr. Iain McGregor, who explains that ecstasy works by flooding the brain with the neurotransmitter serotonin – a chemical that not only regulates mood, but is also thought to help memory and thinking skills. (Prozac and other anti-depressants in its class work specifically by preventing serotonin from being reabsorbed into the brain. This is why it not only works as a treatment for depression, but also explains the so-called “Prozac effect”, in which some healthy patients who take the drug report both improved mood as well as sharper thinking and greater overall brain function). “Ecstasy may cause a surge in serotonin, but there is a sting in the tail: for weeks or months you may have lowered levels, and in the days after a binge, there is a documented depression”, he says – a well-documented phenomenon amongst users, known as “suicide Tuesday”. “Studies we’ve done in our lab here have found that if we give lab rats ecstasy regularly for three months they wind up with anxiety and poorer memory. Additional, if you’ve taken a huge amount of ecstasy and really knock down your serotonin levels, they may never recover to where they were before”. Further weight to the ecstasy-depression link was uncovered recently by researchers at Cambridge University in England, who found that in people with certain genetic make-ups, MDMA could cause an increase in depressive symptoms.
But the bigger danger is mixing drugs, or worse, taking unknown substances such as “smacky” pills – a message Davidson has been preaching for ages. If you have to take something, says McGregor, “you’re better off with pure MDMA if you know that’s what it is. It’s certainly a lot better than methamphetamine [which is often sold as ecstasy], which has a different sort of toxicity. We see a lot of real problems when meth and MDMA are combined, especially by accident, because there is a real exaggerated toxicity”.
Perhaps the most sobering words for ecstasy users come from Dr. Batey, who points out that “like cannabis ten years ago, we didn’t think it was going to be a big problem, but anything that is altering the neurotransmitter system causes real concern
for long-term potential damage”: a lot of people may be able to come through their experiences unscathed, but for users prone to depression or other psychological ailments, there could be a lot of agony after the ecstasy.
FIRST DRAFT: Apr 05, AU Edition
One of our youngest insiders recorded the following exchange at Kirribilli Kindie…
Master John (waving a jewel-encrusted rattle): I’m da king of da castle! You da dirty rascal!
Master Peter: Not fair! I want da big rattle now. My turn. MY TURN!
Master John: No. It mine. All mine. Wanna hit Big Fat Kimby on da head again. One two three time hit him on da head! Yippee!
Master Peter: But you said. You said you’d give me da rattle. I wanna be king now!
Master John: How you can be king? You we… wepub… wepubwican!
Master Peter: OK fine! I want da big rattle so I can be pwesident! Give me rattle! NOW!
Master John: No! It mine! Forever! You, never! Hahaha! Da people, dey all love me! Dey hate you! You da cold one!
Master Peter: Liar! You said intwest wates stay same! Dey go up! You told fib! Liar liar pants on fire!
Master John: Who side you on? You sound like Big Fat Kimby now! Money your job…You do all da stuff wid da play money.
Master Peter: No fair! I done good job! I done ten budgets! And I’m still only dis many! You try dat! Me do better dan you could do.
Master John (waving rattle further away): No. It mine. I love da rattle. It love me. Mine.
Master Peter (collapsing in corner): You just wanna beat Dada Bob, dat why. Dada Bob had da big rattle longer dan anyone. You just want to beat him.
Master John: Don’t bring Dada Bob into dis. Dada Bob my dada. Dada Bob my hero, My dada better than your dada.
Master Peter: Dada Bob my hero too! Dada Bob my dada too!
Master John: No he not. Your dada…DADA GOUGH!
Master Peter: WAAAH! WAAH! You so mean!
Master John: No! It true! You we… wep… wepubwican! You mess up budget! You make intwest wates go BOOM! And you went on “sorry toddle”. Dada Gough proud of you!
Suddenly a little girl in red diapers appears outside
Little Ms. Julia: Dada Gough my dada!
Master John: Ick. It Little Miss Julia.
Little Ms. Julia: Little Ms Julia to you, poohead!
Master Peter: Eeek! Girl germs! Girl germs!
Master John: Commie germs! Commie germs!
Little Ms. Julia (lunging through playpen bars at the rattle): Gimme dat!
Master John: Why you here? What you doing here? Why no Big Fat Kimby?
Little Ms. Julia: He twied. He dwess up like Mandy Vandy. Got caught. Give me rattle! Me want rattle too!
Master John: Commies in da kindy! Commies in
Master Peter: Yeah! Commies in da kindy!
Suddenly a nanny appears:
Nanny: Oh dear, I smell a smell…
All three in unison: Wah! Wah! Wah!
TRAVEL: Apr 05, AU Edition
On a long weekend in Montreal, Carol Pucci discovers that there’s a lot more to Canada than maple syrup, cold weather, and beer
New Yorkers call it “Paris without the jet lag.” That’s the U.S. East Coast perspective. I’d been up since 4 a.m. when my flight from Seattle landed around 5:30 p.m. for the start of a four-day weekend in Montreal.
The “Paris” part seemed right as I walked through the airport noticing posters and signs in French.
The effects of a three-hour time change and eight hours of flying time were open questions.
Here was my challenge: Could I leave Seattle on a Thursday, fly across three time zones, discover the best of a city I knew little about and make it back to Seattle Sunday night?
We like Canadians, and Europe is expensive these days. Montreal feels a lot like Europe, without the Euro.
It wasn’t much past lunchtime in Seattle as my taxi crawled along in Montreal’s rush-hour traffic. The time change was working in my favour in a way I hadn’t expected. My two Delta airlines “beverage only” flights had turned the clock ahead on my appetite, and already it was time for dinner.
I used the long flights (four hours from Seattle to Cincinnati and another two hours from there to Montreal) to rough out a three-night, two-day itinerary.
Rather than frustrate myself by trying to see everything, I decided to concentrate on two areas where I could indulge my passion for eating ethnic and exploring street life: Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal), where the city began as a French colony in 1642, and the newly gentrified Plateau neighbourhood at the base of Mont-Royal, a 300-acre plus nature preserve above downtown. Midway between the two neighbourhoods, on the edge of the student-filled Latin Quarter and cafe and restaurant-packed rue Saint-Denis, was the Château de L’Argoat, a 25-room European-style hotel where I’d booked a room after reading favorable reviews from other travelers on www.tripadvisor.com.
It was a lucky choice. I’m not big on renting cars in strange cities. Everything I wanted to do was within a half-hour’s walk of the hotel or two or three stops from a subway station across the street.
East of Saint-Laurent Boulevard, once a dividing line between the city’s English and French-speaking communities, Saint-Denis, about a 10-minute walk from downtown, is lined on both sides with Thai, Tibetan, African, Italian, Middle Eastern and Asian restaurants, Parisian-style cafes and African boutiques.
A rainstorm forced me into a quick decision on dinner. I ducked into the Resto-Bar Citezen, an Asian-fusion restaurant that advertised lichee and orange blossom martinis, and settled into a leather lounge chair near the window. People darted by wearing parkas and carrying umbrellas. For a minute, I thought I was still in Seattle. Then the Japanese waiter greeted me in French, and I felt as if I’d crossed continents. I ordered a shrimp stir fry from a menu written in French with an English translation. Most Quebecois are bilingual, but French is the language of the majority and, as I learned from my waiter, it’s customary to at least begin a conversation in French.
The skies brightened as I set out Friday morning to explore Vieux Montreal and the port, a historic area of cobblestone alleys and gray-stone houses fronting on the Saint Lawrence River.
Anchored by the art-filled Nôtre Dame Basilica and the waterfront, Old Montreal is a major tourist draw, and I was prepared to regret not having booked a room in one of the boutique hotels along rue Saint-Paul.
I took an hour’s boat cruise on the river for a view of the Biosphere, the giant golf ball-shaped dome designed by Buckminster Fuller that was the United States Pavilion during the 1967 World’s Fair, then settled in for a brie-and-apple crêpe at a café on Saint-Paul. But something was missing. Vieux Montreal lacked a street life. Tourists filled the quaint restaurants and galleries, but where were the locals?
After lunch, I wandered a bit, and followed lower Saint-Laurent through Chinatown and into the heart of downtown where I expected to find a lively business and shopping scene. But panhandlers seemed to outnumber shoppers, and the main drag, rue Sainte-Catherine, was mostly a run-down hodgepodge of sex shops, music stores and souvenir shops. The best stores and most of the people were below the streets and sidewalks. Twenty miles of connecting passageways link subway stations with an underground city filled with theatres, restaurants and shops, some with entrances in unexpected places. Christ Church Cathedral on Sainte-Catherine, for instance, was raised on piles to
lay the foundation for a shopping complex below.
I found the concept more interesting to think about than actually experience. Surely there had to be a real city around here somewhere. On an impulse, I scrapped dinner plans at one of Vieux Montreal’s tony restaurants and took the subway a few stops in the other direction to the Plateau.
Ragtag in parts, gentrified in others, the Plateau is everything Vieux Montreal is not – hectic, disorderly, crowded and multicultural.
Tired from a day of walking, I found M!STO, one of a handful of trendy new restaurants along avenue du Mont-Royal. A pull-down garage door was open to the sidewalk, and I people-watched while eating penne dressed with warm goat cheese and walnuts.
I was panhandled three times as I walked back to the subway station, but I also discovered French flower merchants, Jewish deli owners and Italian produce sellers. The Plateau started out as a 19th-century working-class neighbourhood of Francophones and immigrants, and in the 1960s and ’70s became popular with writers, singers, theatre people and artists.
Shady side streets lead to renovated two and three-story town-house apartments with wrought-iron balconies and metal stairways built on the exterior to save space inside. On rue Marie-Anne, I found Au Tarot, a restaurant that listed 26 types of couscous. Across the street, Francis Torres, an artist born in Boston and raised in Nigeria, was teaching students how to craft theatre masks from recycled bits of cheesecloth, shells and animal skins.
I liked the Plateau more than any neighbourhood I had explored so far, and the next day, I went back for more.
North of avenue du Mont-Royal, the Mediterranean meets the Middle East at the Jean-Talon market in Little Italy. Stalls overflowed with yellow squash the size of bowling pins, bottles of Canadian maple syrup, fresh dates and olive oil. Many of the signs were in Arabic, but much of the chatter I overheard was in Italian.
In the late afternoon, I climbed Mont-Royal on a hiking trail that wound a mile uphill through the woods to an overlook with views of the city and river, then, with a couple of hours to spare, I used my bus and subway pass to double back downtown to the Contemporary Art Museum on rue Sainte-Catherine.
On display was a huge photo called “Naked World” which was shot four years ago by a New York photographer. When I asked about it, an attendant directed me upstairs to the library to watch a four-minute video showing how the artist rounded up hundred of people and convinced them to undress and sprawl nude on the museum’s outdoor plaza.
Saturday evening’s entertainment was a jazz concert at St. James United Church on Sainte-Catherine. As I sat in a pew listening to local blues artist Bob Walsh perform “Amazing Grace,” I thought about the best strategy for trying one of the “Apportez votre vin” (bring your own wine) restaurants I’d seen.
These restaurants don’t charge a corkage fee and seem to exist so owners and customers can avoid the high taxes on alcohol.
“If you’re a restaurant owner, you actually want to operate a place where people can bring their own wine,” one former owner told me. “It attracts a certain kind of clientele.”
After the concert, I grabbed a $6 half-bottle of Chilean Merlot at a subway kiosk and headed back to the Plateau and Au Tarot for couscous. However, I hadn’t made a reservation, all the tables were filled, so I wandered Saint-Denis again and found ChuChai, a vegetarian Thai cafe.
Not sure about the correct local etiquette for transporting wine, I had tucked my bottle in my shoulder bag. Everyone else walked in with a paper sack. A waitress opened my wine and poured a glass. “This is for you,” she said, handing me what I thought was the cork. It turned out to be a screw top. I had bought the wine in such a hurry, I hadn’t noticed.
Next time I’ll go to a liquor store for a proper bottle. I’ll make dinner reservations. I’ll practice my French.
There will be a next time because two days plus travel time wasn’t long enough to do everything. Still, I felt as if I’d been to Paris, certainly, but also Bangkok, London and Rome.
As the French would say, such is la joie de vivre, the joy of life.
IF YOU GO
INFO: Visit Tourisme Montreal at www.tourisme-montreal.org. Ask for a free copy of the Official Tourist Guide 2004-2005.
LODGING: There’s a good choice of chic but expensive boutique hotels in Vieux Montreal, downtown business hotels and moderately priced smaller hotels and bed and breakfasts in the Latin Quarter, Village and Plateau neighbourhoods. For a list, consult Tourisme Montreal or see www.bbmontreal.qc.ca. Rates at the Château de L’Argoat, 524, rue Sherbrooke East, start at $72 for a single and $82 for a double, based on the current exchange rate of $1.03 Australian to the Canadian dollar, plus a 14.5 percent tax. (Fill out a rebate form available at the airport for a refund on the federal portion, about 7 percent.) Rates include breakfast and free Internet service. Call 514-842-2046 or see www.hotel-chateau-argoat.qc.ca
TRANSPORTATION: Having a car isn’t essential. The subway and bus system cover downtown areas and neighbourhoods. A one-day pass is $7.80; a three-day pass is $15.70. Single-trip fares are $2.50.
TRAVELER’S TIP: Most signs, menus, etc. are in French and English, but some are not. Most residents are bilingual, but it’s polite to begin a conversation with a French greeting such as “Bonjour” and end with a “Merci.”
FOOD: Apr 05, AU Edition
THE TAXATION DIET
Eli Jameson says the best way to keep kids slim is to run them around – not tax their snacks
We Australians are a funny lot: we are either fiercely individualist and independent, reflecting the best of our settler virtues, or we curl up in a ball, scream “it’s all too hard!” and demand that the government come in and pass a law to solve our problem-of-the-moment.
This second instinct – which threatens to make Australia have more in common with California than just wine and weather – is kicking in more and more often these days. With an alleged “obesity crisis” in the news seemingly every week, an unholy alliance of journalists and public health professionals have teamed up, demanding that Something. Be. Done.
Up until recently, the focus has been largely on “junk” food and its advertising, and in a country with no guaranteed right to freedom of speech, there has not been much outcry at the idea of banning companies (specifically sinister American ones) from promoting their products and making them seem as attractive as possible. After all, the reasoning goes, if Australian kids aren’t subjected to all that evil advertising for maccas and other unhealthy foods, they’ll all of a sudden turn into those mythical European kids we hear so much about who skip to school with lunch pails full of roast squab, farmhouse bread, and little flagons of extra virgin olive oil.
Lately, though, the debate has taken a new and potentially expensive turn. The co-director of something called the NSW Centre for Public Health Nutrition, Karen Webb, has recently come out with a proposal that the government step in and regulate the price of food. “There needs to be some pricing regulation for lower energy-dense food versus the unhealthier alternative,” she recently told Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph. “In some areas, it is obvious there is a problem – for example, soft drinks are cheaper than milk.” Of course, this is not the sinister conspiracy Webb makes it out to be: mixing cornsyrup and water and getting it to market is a lot easier and cheaper than maintaining and milking a herd of cows and getting their perishable produce into refrigerated shelves.
There was a time when sane people would hear that some academic was trying to tax them into changing their eating habits, and they’d respond in a calm and clear voice that World War II-era rationing was over, and perhaps you’d just like to wait here while the men in white coats come? Yet, amazingly, Webb’s argument seems to have support: the Australian Medical Association, among others, has come out and said it would get behind the idea. After all, fat people have higher medical bills, higher medical bills are paid for by the taxpayer, therefore the taxes are just a way of making sure the large pay their fair share, and so on.
Of course, it’s also just another way to encourage the notion that everything one does as an individual, even what one eats, is the business of everyone else, including the state – and ignores the fact that “the personal is political” is not just a bad bumper sticker, but also a really bad idea in practice. The last thing we need are Cuba’s infamous block captains checking up on the contents of our fridges.
The reasons some kids are fat in this country are easy enough to see, and using taxes and levies to monkey with the prices of various foods will change nothing except the government’s bank balance. It’s hard to imagine the price point at which an over-indulged kid’s parent would stop fattening his or her offspring like a foie gras goose and start buying from the local wholefoods cooperative: would $8 for a Big Mac be too much? How about $12?
No, the problem isn’t that healthy food is too expensive, thus kids are too fat, and therefore a whole new government institution needs to be spawned to fix the problem. In fact, with a minimum of time, knowledge and skill, fresh fruit and vegetables can be found and cooked, often for far less than something pre-prepared.
Webb and other healthy-living advocates ignore the fact that there’s a lot more to an individual’s food choices, be he rich or poor, than sheer economics.
It’s that nobody makes their kids get out and do anything: everything from parental terror over drugs, booze and “stranger danger” to regulations such as bike helmet laws which make healthy activities that much more marginally difficult have turned Australia into a country where parents would rather let their kids sit around and play with their X-box, “so at least I know where they are and can keep an eye on them”.
And there’s a bigger point, too, that is often missed in this sort of discussion. It’s that no matter how much one likes fat-free food or organic food or expensive gourmet food, sometimes a Big Mac just tastes good. And no amount of tax is going to change that.
THIS 389 IS A 10
To hear the marketing boffins tell it, Australia’s vintners haven’t had a bad year for ages (or at least since they came on the job). If you believe the press releases – a.k.a. “tasting notes” – every vintage is a stand-out classic that’s destined for the cellar, and can just as easily be opened with tonight’s steaks as put away for the eighteenth birthday of a child who hasn’t even been conceived yet. So when Theresa at my local bottleshop told me the ’02 Penfold’s “Bin” range was tipped to be as good as those of the 1996 vintage, I was skeptical.
I shouldn’t have been. Especially at the higher end of the range, Penfold’s has come out with some real standouts this year – especially their Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon and their Bin 389 Cabernet-Shiraz blend (famously referred to as “poor man’s Grange”). Unlike some of their offerings of recent years, which I feel have often been over-oaked or over-fruited or otherwise just somehow out of balance, these manage to hit just about every note right, right now. One can only imagine how they’ll be in ten years time.
Although Penfold’s claims, in an admirable moment of honesty, that the 407 is a bit closed and needs a few years to open up, I found that after a really good swirl in the glass, it woke up and filled my nose with multiple layers of cabernet fruit. Even better, though, was the 389: I got started seriously drinking red wine in the early 1990s and, when I could afford it, 389 was my favourite. The 2002 vintage instantly reminded me why this was, as the fruit and oak are so elegant and perfectly matched that if they could enter “Dancing With the Stars”, they’d win hands down.
The rest of the range is good, too, with the Bin 138 being an easy-drinking favorite, full of approachable Grenache grapes that could make even die-hard white drinkers put the chardy back in the fridge.
HEALTH: Apr 05, AU Edition
SLICE OF LIFE
The circumcision debate has reignited, with a Melbourne doctor calling the controversial cut a lifesaver. But is it really?
What do you call the useless bit of skin at the end of a penis? The man. Sorry, that just popped out. And while it may be funny, it’s also just as inaccurate an answer as any, since the human foreskin is actually not particularly useless; it protects the penis underneath.
It also harbours the Human Papilloma Virus, which causes penile and cervical cancer. Oh yeah, and it is also said to facilitate the transmission of HIV.
On second thought, it’s worse than useless – it’s an absolute death trap! Off with their…anyway.
Somewhere between 80 and 90 per cent of Australian boys are, like my own two sons, uncircumcised. The Royal Australasian College of Physicians sees no reason to support routine newborn circumcision, so it is not regularly performed in Australia or New Zealand except for religious or medical reasons.
Ah, but wait. The aptly-named Professor Roger Short of Melbourne University and the Royal Women’s Hospital’s obstetrics department, has recently suggested that we reconsider our attitudes. Short’s research has shown that because the HIV virus enters the body via the foreskin, circumcised men have 7 times less chance of contracting HIV than uncircumcised men.
The Human Papilloma Virus, or HPV (a nasty little bug that causes cervical cancer in women and the much rarer penile cancer in men), also lives under the foreskin, so women with an uncircumcised partner have twice the risk of developing cervical cancer.
This research is actually in line with previous research on the subject, so I’m going to go along with the man and presume he’s correct in his research findings. It’s the conclusions that follow on from these findings that I have trouble with. Let’s walk through this: you live in a western democracy which has soap, running water and condoms widely available. Rates of HIV are low in your community. The spread of both HIV and HPV viruses can be nearly entirely stopped by the use of the aforementioned condoms. So you conclude that to prevent your tiny baby from ever contracting HIV or HPV, you should go messing about with his penis.
I’m not saying the science is faulty: I’m saying that if my boys can’t think of a better way to avoid contracting HIV than surgery, then we have a whole other set of problems on our hands.
The value in Prof. Short’s research mayfc be found in countries with endemic HIV. Encouraging routine circumcision of newborns in countries which already support the practise may have implications for reducing the spread of AIDS in conjunction with public health teaching about safer sex practices. (Less happily, it may also fuel the belief that condoms aren’t necessary). Unfortunately, countries with high HIV rates don’t tend to have large clean modern obstetric units or much in the way of local anaesthetics and sterile equipment, so one would have to assume that the complication rates of circumcision would be higher than in Western countries.
Of course, there are other reasons for circumcision, religion being chief among them. Jewish and Muslim babies are circumcised in the first week or so of life, rapidly (as one would hope), and generally with local anaesthesia.
That’s all very well and good, but my bigger concern is with the pursuit of circumcision for “socio-cultural reasons” (“so that the boy matches his dad” is a surprisingly common justification). Parents wishing their child to be circumcised for these sorts of aesthetic reasons are advised to wait until the child is
SCIENCE: Apr 05, AU Edition
Sure, Einstein hit it big in 1905. But let’s not forget the really important inventions of a century ago – like the windscreen wiper, says Pat Sheil
The Japanese thumped the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War. Sailors mutinied on the battle-ship Potemkin. Norway gained independence from Sweden, Sun Yat-sen founded his secret society to expel the Manchus, and Sinn Fein was founded in Dublin. Oh, and England flogged the Aussies in the Ashes.
But if you ask a group of scientists what happened in 1905, they’ll all say the same thing: Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity. Now, there’s no denying that this was a significant event. A 26-year-old patent clerk had the temerity to tear classical physics to confetti and throw it out the conceptual window, and while most people say the 20th century started in 1901, and others contend it really began in 1914, most scientists date our brave new world from Einstein’s theoretical detonation of ’05.
On top of that, in 1905 he used Brownian motion to confirm atomic theory, and explained the photo-electric effect (for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1921 – he never got a prize for relativity, funnily enough). It was a big year for Albert, though he didn’t really become famous until the effects he predicted in his General Theory of 1915 were confirmed four years later during a total solar eclipse, when the light of a distant star was measurably bent by the sun’s gravity. He was right – relativity actually applied in the real world.
Yet even then, with his peers in awe of his achievement, the rest of the world simply took the scientists’ word for it: this Albert Einstein was one brainy guy. Even today, we have to take this on trust, because relativity and all that it implies is not exactly self-evident as we go about our daily lives.
So counter-intuitive is it that even though most of us can come to grips with the ideas if the basics are properly explained, very few of us are able to explain it to anyone else a week or two later.
Relativity has a short cerebral half-life – an hour is long enough for it to be brain-dumped in most cases. The fact is that humans live in a Newtonian world, where the three laws of motion clearly affect everything from cricket to sex, from driving a car to falling down the stairs. Relativistic insights are momentarily gleaned from
encounters with powerful drugs or inspired physics teachers, not by lifting a beer in the pub or running down an infant with a supermarket trolley.
But in a bizarre coincidence, 1905 saw major breakthroughs in the application of Newtonian physics and old-fashioned 19th century chemistry which set the tone for the new century in ways that are much easier to understand. Ideas, patents and processes that we still use all the time and which changed our everyday world, for good or ill, depending on your point of view.
For instance, 1905 saw the invention of the jukebox, by one John Gabel of Chicago. There had been coin-operated Edison phonographs seen in the preceding decade, but these only played one tune, and were so quiet that they could only be heard by putting a listening tube to your ear. Gabel, who had previously built cigar vending machines, manufactured and marketed the “Automatic Entertainer”, which offered a choice of two dozen different songs played through a massive 102-cm. horn.
In one of those fortuitous coincidences that pepper the history of technology, the rise of the jukebox was given a hefty boost by the invention of thermo-setting plastics, also in 1905. Chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland had just sold his photographic paper process to George Eastman for a million dollars and, by 1905 standards, was cashed up in a very big way. He hit pay dirt again by founding the plastics industry virtually single-handed, and felt that his first breakthrough invention in the field was so significant that it was only fair to name it after himself. Bakelite was born.
Technically, Bakelite is a polymerisation of formaldehyde and phenol. In practical terms, it was the first plastic that didn’t soften when heated, and as well as creating an explosion of consumer electrical goods, kitchenware, telephone housings and a thousand other doo-dads and gizmos, it transformed the recording industry as it was ideal for the pressing of 78 rpm discs.
The world was becoming “new-fangled”. If you tired of the 24 Bakelite 78’s on the Automatic Entertainer, you could catch a
motorised omnibus (the first ones plied the streets in 1905) and make your way to the cinema. Well, you could if you were in Pittsburgh, where the first dedicated nickel cinema, or nickelodeon, was opened by vaudeville promoter Harry Davis. It would be 25 years before the movies and the depression killed off vaudeville for good, but Davis pulled in a lot of nickels without having to pay any flesh-and-blood entertainers, and it didn’t take long before others caught on – within three years there would be 8,000 nickelodeons across the USA.
Given that hi-tech entertainment was on a roll in ’05, it was fortuitous that someone came along with a promotional tool that couldn’t be ignored to keep the show on the road. French chemist and inventor Georges Claude worked out in that year that by pushing electricity through a tube filled with neon gas (which had only been discovered six years earlier), a new form of lighting could be had, and one that could be bent and twisted into letters, shapes, and logos. His invention was to make him a fortune, and to reach its apotheosis in the town of Las Vegas, where it took on ever-more-lurid forms.
It shouldn’t be at all surprising that Las Vegas was founded in, yep, 1905.Music, lighting, entertainment, transport, mass-production – in 1905 the 20th century really started to hit its straps. The first signs of what the century had in store came as cracks began to appear in the Victorian/Edwardian edifice of starch and prudery. And not just in the dark, thrilling back rows of the nickelodeons, though preachers were already warning of the moral turpitude to be found in these places. Even talking about sex almost became respectable with the publication of Sigmund Freud’s Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex.
Einstein had never seen a neon light or ridden in a motorised omnibus when he wrote his seminal paper. He had never used a Bakelite telephone or put a coin in a jukebox. He may have seen a moving picture show or two – he was a patent clerk after all – and knew a thing or two about the latest inventions. Perhaps the absence of such distractions, and the sheer boredom of working in the Swiss bureaucracy played a crucial part in the extrapolations that led to the Special Theory. Then again, being a freakish genius probably didn’t hurt.
Years later, as he was driven home from the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study in the pouring winter rain (Einstein was sufficiently a man of the 19th century to have never learnt to drive a car), his driver would have been thankful for the inspiration of Mary Anderson. Mary spent many a freezing evening in New York streetcars, as the drivers stopped, got out, and letting in a blast of snow or sleet wiped the window so they could see where they were going. She got sick of it, and realised that the answer was not relativistic, but deeply Newtonian. She understood that the solution was quite straightforward, and after knocking out a few sketches, patented the first windscreen wiper.
TECHNOLOGY: Apr 05, AU Edition
Nokia’s feature-packed 9300 communicator over-delivers on just about every score
Ialmost got arrested because of the Nokia 9300, I liked it so much. I had just gotten the handset to review the day before, and had spent the previous 24 hours eagerly trying out every one of its bells and whistles when, out of sheer exuberance, I turned the thing on in a place I should not have: aboard a QANTAS puddle-jumper that had just landed in Canberra.
Now, we were safely on the ground and the door to the plane was open when I decided to turn it on and check my voicemail, so I just assumed that any danger that a rogue SMS could have sent us hurtling to a fiery death had well and truly passed.
As it turns out, they do things differently in our nation’s capital.
Not only did a stewardess practically yank the thing out of my hand as I stepped out onto the tarmac, but as I walked to the terminal a burly fellow passenger who claimed to be part from the Transport Safety Bureau clapped me on the shoulder saying, “Mate, you cannot have that thing on anywhere airside at this airport! It carries the potential of jail and a very heavy fine!”
Perhaps he thought I had paid retail for the thing – just about anywhere you look, the pricetag tips over into four-figures territory – and needed to have a little more of my wealth redistributed.
By the time he was done, we were through the little building and I was diving out the door into a waiting cab, briefcase in one hand, schmick silvery mobile in the other, one step ahead of the law.
Brushes with authority aside (I doubt I would have been so eager to play with a $49 pre-paid jobby), the Nokia 9300 is a truly life-changing little bit of technology. Yes, it’s a good deal bigger than most phones on the market, but that’s because there’s more to it than just about any other handset available today. For one thing, it flips open to reveal a little QWERTY-layout keyboard which, though too small for even the slenderest fingers to type comfortably on, works great when held in both hands with each thumb working one side.
Above the keyboard is a little colour screen that is small but rich and crisp enough to manage a Windows-style operating system – which is where the thing’s real grunt and growl becomes apparent. One can surf the Web (though for me this was more fun in theory than in practice; I may have just been unlucky but attempts to load even quick, text-heavy sites took forever) and, more usefully, send and receive e-mail from one’s own ISP’s POP3 server as well. And, happily, it’s no more difficult to configure than Outlook Express.
(Another advantage of the screen: there’s a great little built-in golf game that shows up a treat. Not only does it save your round mid-play – allowing one to play a quick hole in a free moment and come back to the round later – but for me at least, it perfectly mimicked my playing style. As in real life, gimme putts just sometimes failed to drop, and even when my electronic setup and swing were completely in order, my drives still sometimes just skittered harmlessly along the ground, coming to rest just past the ladies’ tees).
Some of the other features seem a little less necessary, if only because the idea of working on something so small takes some getting used to – both physically and mentally. Not only does one have to get one’s small-motor skills back up to snuff to work the keys and joystick that serves as a mouse, but I found something unnerving about the fact that I suddenly had a phone with a better display and more available memory than my computer. Although it is possible to do so, I don’t think I ever see myself knocking up a quick Excel-compatible spreadsheet or PowerPoint-compatible presentation on my mobile. If that sort of work is required on the road, I’ll bring along my laptop.
But the Nokia 9300’s real selling point, I think, is to the cashed-up technophile road warrior: with its own suite of PC software and docking station (a.k.a. “Connectivity Desk Stand”), the phone becomes an organiser par excellence. For those who travel a lot for business, especially overseas, one can easily see how the 9300 would be a God-send. Between the phone’s tri-band EGSM capabilities (in other words, it will work on five continents), the ability to grab e-mail on the go and write coherent responses without having to hit the “2” key three times just to type a “c”, and the contact and personal organizing software which syncs everything up with a home or office PC, those who spend anything approaching serious time travelling overseas for business will find this thing indispensable.
Finally, some quibbles: Why doesn’t the 9300 have a camera? With so much in the way of communications capabilities, it seems a waste not to be able to take a happy snap on the thing and then e-mail it around the world.
Also, a speakerphone function would be nice as well; while obviously not polite for, say, shared offices, the one-touch loudspeaker on my own Nokia flip-phone is a lifesaver in loud spaces, and I was surprised by how much I found myself missing it once I started using the 9300.
Ultimately, the best thing I could compare this phone to would be a big super-luxury car – say, a Bentley. Oversized, more powerful than most people need, and many times more pricey than something more utilitarian that will still get you from A to B. Admittedly, the Nokia 9300 is not for everyone, but for those who can and will really take advantage of all its features, it remains a great piece of engineering and a really useful toy.
RIGHT HOOK: Apr 05, AU Edition
Lefties, come back!
Liberals have been completely intellectually vanquished. Actually, they lost the war of ideas long ago. It’s just that now their defeat is so obvious, even they’ve noticed. As new Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean might say, it’s all over but the screaming.
In an editorial last month, The New York Times gave President Bush credit for democracy sweeping through the Middle East or, as the Times put it, “a year of heartening surprises”. Yes, the Middle East’s
current democratization would come as quite a surprise to anyone who puts his hands over his ears and hums during the president’s speeches.
Rolling Stone magazine is making fun of “moveon.org” for having no contact with normal Americans.Their Bush-hating cause has become so hopeless that moveon.org is on the verge of actually moving on.
No one is defending the Italian Communist who claims American forces intentionally shot at her in Iraq. She may have lost some credibility when she backed her claim, that Americans were targeting her, by quoting her kidnappers. She said her kidnappers had warned her to stay away from the Americans because they would only hurt her.
Consider that less than twenty years ago, American TV legends Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace announced at an “Ethics in America” panel that they would not intervene to prevent the slaughter of American troops while on duty as journalists – especially during ratings week. As Wallace said: “You don’t have a higher duty. No. No. You’re a reporter!” It almost makes you wonder if U.S. troops have ever targeted American journalists in the field during wartime. Maybe former CNN President Eason Jordan would know something about that.
Now liberal journalists are pretending to support the troops. They hardly ever call them “baby killers” anymore, at least to their faces.
Democrats are even pretending to believe in God – you know, as they understand Her.
So now, all of America is ignoring liberals. I’m the canary in the coal mine. Twenty-six congressmen have signed a letter denouncing me for a column I wrote recently; for the past few weeks, I’ve been attacked on MSNBC and CNN, in the Detroit Free-Press and on every known liberal blog and radio show. (I especially want to thank Pacifica Radio in this regard.) I personally have shouted their complaints from the rooftops.
Liberals had fallen into my trap!
But there was no point in responding because no one had heard about the liberal denunciations in the first place. It was like explaining a joke: OK, and then they said, “Call me a cab,” and then I said, “You’re a cab! Are you following this? ... Sorry, let me start over again.”
It’s not just that we’re a divided nation, with liberals watching only CNN and conservatives watching only Fox News. I’m pretty sure liberals are aware of me, and I haven’t appeared on CNN for months. It’s liberals the country is ignoring. No one knows or cares what they’re carrying on about in their media outlets. Liberals can’t get arrested. They’re even letting Martin Sheen off with a warning now.
I hate to sound selfish at such a great moment for the country, but this is nothing short of calamitous for completely innocent right-wing polemicists. Liberals are too pathetic to write about. I have nothing to do; my life is over.
Where have all the flowers gone?
SPIN CITY: Apr 05, AU Edition
Where is John Howard’s opposition? These days, not in the ALP
Recent weeks have seen a flurry of policy ideas – good, bad and stupid – floated by Coalition parliamentarians. Good: the so-called Ginger Group has championed tax reform. Bad: Tony Abbott and others have ignited a debate over abortion. Stupid: Petro Georgiou declared that Australia’s border protection policies have worked so well that they should be abolished.
Various commentators have discussed the threat posed to John Howard by these rumblings from the party room. On another front, the perennial leadership question has returned to the fore. And speaking of the Treasurer, he has drawn fire from state governments over his outrageous proposition that they should use their GST windfalls to eliminate inefficient state taxes, rather than directing it towards crucial projects like the taxpayer-funded refurbishment of Victorian Trades Hall.
In all this excitement, it’s easy to forget the only people we’re not hearing from – the Opposition. Fresh from a fourth successive defeat, federal Labor has settled on a simple strategy: more of the same.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in their choice of leader. The Labor caucus swallowed hook, line and sinker the conventional media wisdom about the reason for Mark Latham’s defeat: he was too “risky”.
It seems not to have occurred to Labor that the real problem with Latham was that, once elevated to the leadership, his much-vaunted courage descended into sheer opportunism as he danced from one populist position to the next. No, Labor thinks that its problem was a leader with new ideas. Their solution?
Appoint a leader with none.
Who could forget cringing before Kim Beazley’s self-debasing advertising campaign to tell the electorate where he stood? The answer, as best we could discern from the ads, was “next to a desk”.
Now we have returned to the purely reactionary and opportunistic style of opposition in which Labor has been mired through most of the Howard era, eschewing alternative policy detail in favour of a shopping list of complaints. At a time in the political cycle when opposition MPs should be flying a thousand policy kites to see which remain aloft, Labor’s benches appear bereft of ideas. As a result, the nation’s only alternative policy agenda is coming from the Government backbench.
This is not just a problem of political cowardice. The Labor malaise runs far deeper.
Here’s an easily-repeatable experiment I recently tried: ask a few grassroots Liberals what policies the Government should introduce. Tax cuts, welfare reforms; you’ll get your answer. For a laugh, try the same with a Green: “Ban cars, free marijuana for all” (I quote from memory).
Now ask a few Labor branch members of the more cosmopolitan variety.
The results are not just reactionary, they are laced with cynicism about both the electorate and the party: Howard’s border protection policy is evil – but we must tread softly or the racist Australian electorate will reject us. We must stop Howard’s IR reforms, welfare reforms, and so on – but we can’t wind back what’s already done. Union power in the ALP is undemocratic – but without it, the lunatics would take charge of the asylum.
It is common to both parties that most parliamentarians are less comfortable with policy and ideology than with political tactics. But when the grassroots membership, after nine years of opposition, cannot identify any unifying cause beyond opposition to the government of the day, it is no surprise that their representatives can’t either.
Unfortunately for Labor, Beazley’s ungainly verbiage does not conceal, but accentuates, his lack of substance, as displayed in a Lateline interview with Tony Jones on 22 February. Having criticised the deployment of additional forces to Iraq, Beazley was pressed for his own prescription:
BEAZLEY: …you will never be able to train sufficient Iraqi security forces to do that job…
JONES: But are you saying we should not be training Iraqi security forces; that shouldn’t be part of the mission of Australian troops?
BEAZLEY: I think we need a different engagement with Iraq. I’ve made that clear before. I think the time has come to say to the Iraqis: well, there is a certain military involvement that we will have - and I don’t want to go through all the issues there; you understand what our position is in that regard - but as far as...
[Here Jones wisely interrupts to change the topic before his remaining listeners nod off].
While it is fun to torment the congenitally-verbose, consider whether Beazley’s style is more a symptom than a cause of his party’s problems. At a fundamental level, federal Labor simply has nothing to say. Beazley merely personifies his party’s irrelevance.
It need not be this way. The Howard Government has overseen a transfer in economic power from those who earn to those who own. Younger generations have every right to feel angered by the baby boomers, who have maintained exorbitant income tax rates to fund unsustainable benefits for their retirement while forcing the rest of us to pay our own way through life. A bold ALP would start by establishing its credentials as the party of inter-generational justice. For instance, Labor could advocate abolishing negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount to fund substantial cuts in income tax. It could push for a rise in the retirement age. And it could devise other policies to address the looming imbalance between workers and welfare recipients.
But while opportunities abound for Labor to demonstrate a fresh commitment to good governance, it remains paralysed by fear. Labor’s renewal will require a positive reappraisal of the electorate Labor has learnt to despise.
Australians no longer believe in a free lunch. That is why too-good-to-be-true policies like Medicare Gold have failed. This is an era of conviction politics.
If Labor is prepared to build on the theme of inter-generational justice and securing the interests of future generations, it will win converts even amongst those adversely affected. Contrary to the bleating of demoralised left-wing columnists, Australians do not decide their votes on self-interest alone, or even principally.
The GST election demonstrated that it is possible to win with policies that people believe will affect them adversely, so long as they feel there is a greater national good at stake. A courageous Labor leader could restore Labor’s sense of moral purpose without venturing onto the Greens’ wilder shores. Nothing lasts forever, and sooner or later Labor will find itself in government, however lacklustre that government may be. It is therefore in the interests of all Australians that Labor find a new and worthy vision to advance.
THE WATCHER: Apr 05, AU Edition
ALAN RM JONES
One last gasp of hope for the ABC
If you happened to be around in 1938 and were tuning into America’s Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) one autumn night you would have heard the following ‘announcement’: Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt
our program… to bring you a special bulletin… Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports… explosions of incandescent gas… on the planet Mars… moving towards the Earth with enormous velocity. And later, near the end of the broadcast,I’m speaking from the roof of broadcasting building, New York City. The bells you hear are ringing to warn the people to evacuate the city as the Martians approach…
By then, some panic-stricken listeners were either hiding in their basements – loaded shotgun at the ready – or had packed up and left town, no doubt wondering why the government hadn’t taken pre-emptive action.
It was all the doing of the brilliant if mischievous Orson Welles and CBS’s Mercury Theatre of the Air radio production of HG Wells’ science fiction thriller, War of the Worlds.
In the broadcast’s aftermath, the US Congress bellowed many pieties about responsible broadcasting and called for better regulation of the airwaves to protect the community’s more credulous souls. The New York Tribune’s Dorothy Thompson wrote that with no more than a few voices on the radio Welles had scared and demoralized thousands. Welles issued an apology and the issue faded into broadcast folklore.
Today, news broadcast audiences, perhaps less gullible, are fed information more plausible but not necessarily more truthful. Across the globe once-venerated news organisations like the ABC, the BBC, and America’s CBS are under fire from better-informed and more skeptical news consumers and, in the latter two cases, from taxpayers and their governments.
While few institutions have escaped criticism in recent times, the media, particularly the news end of it, seems to have been caught by surprise. Working in their cloistered enclaves, protected from critical scrutiny, much of the journalistic profession believed things could continue on as they had in the past, in splendid isolation.
Such is the case with the ABC, which has had a grilling over balance and impartiality, or more precisely, its lack of it in its news broadcasts. At the heart of the matter appears to be a lack of understanding by its senior management, staff and supporters, of the difference between the legislatively mandated role of the ABC and its commercial news counterparts.
“News,” former Australian Broadcasting Authority Chairman (ABA) David Flint says, “must be presented objectively, and opinion be clearly distinguishable from news… the Sydney Morning Herald is absolutely entitled, if it wishes, to take a left of centre position… A public broadcaster is not because of the way in which it is funded and established.”
Ex-ABC “Media Watch” host and Sydney Morning Herald kvetch David Marr contends such standards represent a “kindergarten notion of balance”. Perhaps. But the ABC exists at the sufferance of the grownup Australian taxpayers, and is expected to live up to its charter, prescribed by law.
Childish or not, that code demands, that ABC’s news programs be “balanced and impartial”. Although the code requires that editorial staff present a wide range of views, it does not expect them to view all sides of an issue equally. Adult editorial supervision is required. Saddam Hussein’s views, for example, are not to be accorded equal weight to those of the US government.
ALSTON GOES TO THE CREASE
In the view of former communications minister Richard Alston, both of those prerequisites – balance and impartiality and effective editorial control – were found wanting at the ABC during the Iraq war. According to Alston, the AM program had repeatedly made comments that were highly subjective and not factually based, and suggested a lack of regard for editorial oversight.
To back up his point, Alston provided the ABC’s MD, Richard Balding, with 68 examples where AM had breached the ABC’s code of practice over a three week period, in March and April 2003 (during major hostilities in Iraq). Alston made these charges in the context of remarks made by ABC’s news director Max Uechtritiz that “the military are lying bastards”.
After an 18-month review process by the ABC and then by the ABA, 21 – nearly a third – of Alston’s original examples were upheld as breaches of the ABC’s code of practice. Twelve of them were considered to constitute serious breaches of the code. The ABA’s acting chairman Lyn Maddock said that AM’s use of “tendentious language” in its Iraq war coverage would have given its listeners the clear impression that the program was pre-disposed to a particular view. And this was just one particular program.
Yet the reaction to the breaches from much of the media has ranged from indifference to claims of vindication, in the latter case most notably and worryingly from the ABC’s own MD. A CPA by training, Balding apparently couldn’t count how many breaches have been sustained but nonetheless appears to have mastered the idiom of tendentiousness.
Alluding only to the four additional breaches found by the ABA, Balding said he welcomed the ABA’s finding that “AM was balanced” in its coverage of the war in Iraq, and concluded with a swipe at the authority for its “flawed” review. That should send a strong signal to the ABC journalists found to be in breach of the code and other staff seeking guidance.
Contrary to the more paranoid of the ABC’s ‘friends’, such
criticism is not the result of any right-wing plot; rather, it is the bias exhibited in the ABC’s news programming and lack of adherence to its charter and code of practice by its staff that has invited
the adverse attention. Over time, if unchecked such code and
charter breaches will erode the legitimacy of the ABC, until, one day,
political support for its existence and special status will
ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN
Tapped by communications minister Helen Coonan to sit on the ABC board, conservative columnist Janet Albrechtsen now finds herself front and centre in this debate.
Judging by the response of the ABC collective – variously, the CPSU, which represents ABC staff, the Friends of the ABC and the ALP – you’d think Albrechtsen’s appointment was equivalent to another science fiction classic, Attack of the 50-foot Woman.
The public sector union’s Graeme Thomson claimed “many” were against someone such as Albrechtsen who “consistently displayed antagonism towards the work that ABC staff perform”.
As Sydney Institute’s Gerard Henderson pointed out in the Herald, “critics of the Government’s appointments fail to appreciate there is no inconsistency between being a thoughtful critic of the contemporary ABC and being a supporter of public broadcasting”. But Henderson is skeptical that much can be done to the ABC at the board level.
So I asked Albrechtsen what she hoped to accomplish as an ABC director. She is realistic but more optimistic than Henderson and believes the board can bring about positive change.
Albrechtsen prefaces her answer by stating that she is a consumer and fan of the ABC, and agrees that the public broadcaster’s legitimacy is on the line. One of her top priorities will be to address news bias.
“A good place to begin is to ensure that, over time, management recruits staff that are able to serve the interests of all of the broadcaster’s shareholders – the Australian community – not just a narrow band of it,” she says.
In the shorter term, Albrechtsen will want to see the broadcaster’s charter and code of practice adhered to. Does she believe the broadcaster’s charter and code of practice are adequate – especially during wartime?
“So long as the board is satisfied that ABC management and staff is seeing that the broadcaster is abiding by its charter and code of practice, then I see no reason why there should be any changes”.
And if the board is unable to ensure that the public broadcaster remains faithful to its mandate? Control of the Senate will pass to the Government in July. That will provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take corrective measures. After the Jonathan Shier debacle, it’s a bet the Government will not let that opportunity pass unexploited if need be.
Balding is a numbers man who, in defence of his management of the ABC, likes to refer to public opinion surveys commissioned with your tax dollars. I would not quibble that the majority of those who watch the ABC think everything is tickety-boo. But most people don’t watch the ABC. And the only choice that counts is the one viewers make each night with their thumb. Balding will also want to keep in mind the Government’s own increased numbers come July.
If Mars did attack Earth someday, how should the ABC report it?
As the death-ray-emitting saucers hurtled toward Earth and – one would hope – are engaged by a coalition of willing nations (while the UN fretted and muttered platitudes about the peaceful uses of space) how would the ABC interpret its code of conduct? Would it give a fair and balanced account of the grievances motivating the little green men?
Will AM’s Linda Mottram proclaim that ‘Coalition commanders are finding the public relations war may have slipped from their grasp, attacks by the height-challenged red planet dwellers are causing confusion and sapping morale’?
Will Kerry O’Brien demand to know why Australia’s immigration minister – ‘fixated on asylum-seekers’ – has dropped the ball?
Presuming an interpreter could be found who spoke the appropriate interstellar dialect, would an aggrieved space invader be permitted to give his side of things to Lateline’s Tony Jones? (e.g., Martian air waves polluted with reality TV, regular invasions and occupation by robot explorers not to mention always the wisecracks about their diminutive stature.)
It would be more interesting than 60 Minutes’ cash-for-questions-not-answered Mamdouh Habib interview. And ABC shareholders would wish to be able to trust the editorial judgment of the news editors in each case. At present, there is little reason why
However, the ABC has a chance to win that trust and, if it wants to be around to cover the biggest story of all time, it should embrace its critics. Most of them mean it well.
THE ARENA: Apr 05, AU Edition
New York used to be a hell of a town. Is Sydney becoming one?
On a hot summer night almost fifteen years ago, a car in a Hasidic Jewish funeral procession veered out of control on a street in the Brooklyn suburb of Crown Heights, killing a black child, Gavin Cato, and severely injuring his cousin. What followed were several days of riots during which the police held back and let the criminals vent their anger by destroying property and attacking Jews, including Yankel Rosenbaum, a visiting scholar from Melbourne who was stabbed to death.
Fast forward to just a few weeks ago: again, a fatal suburban car crash sparks several days of rioting, and again, the cops hang back and let the bad guys do their thing – after all, their commanders wouldn’t want them to do anything that would “make the situation worse”, i.e. arrest people.
Of course, there are crucial differences in these two scenarios: the first took place in New York; the second in outer Sydney. In the first case, a truly innocent life was snatched (not that that is an excuse for rioting by any means). In the second, the dead were a pair of budding career criminals who were hooning around in a car they knew was stolen and crashed after being chased by police. And unlike today’s Sydney, the New York of the early-1990s in the bad old days before Rudy Giuliani was in fact a pretty lawless place where the cops were ineffectual at best and politicians could only promise to slow the slide into anarchy. This is the environment Tom Wolfe so brilliantly captured in his classic, The Bonfire of the Vanities.
But just because New York’s bad old days seem so far removed does not mean there are not serious lessons that Sydney’s leaders need to learn – not the least of which is that if a place is perceived as being lawless, then it will quickly become so. The Macquarie Fields riots came just a few months after riots in the inner-city suburb of Redfern, where the death of an aboriginal teen – supposedly after a police pursuit – led to several nights of violence that, again, police were reluctant to clamp down upon.
And while the sort of kids who fling petrol bombs at cop cars and laugh when policewomen are knocked over are certainly not the sharpest knives in the drawer, even they are quick enough to pick up the lesson that when confronted with a mob, overwhelmed cops are powerless and under orders to withdraw and negotiate. Which is why just a few nights after the Macquarie Fields riots which took so long to quell, 150 youths started flinging bottles and abuse at cops in Darling Harbour. And, thanks to the principle of “safety in numbers”, only a handful of miscreants were arrested.
By worrying too much about appearances and not enough about law and order, NSW’s leaders are sending a powerful message that will only come back and bite them and the voters who keep electing them. And Premier Bob Carr’s increasingly politically-correct stance on the riots is not helping. (He started out sensibly in the immediate aftermath of the riots by blaming the criminals involved, only to backpeddle and cast responsibility first on poor social factors, then on bad parenting – things which feature in the lives of plenty of people who still manage not to go ape and destroy their street every time they think the authorities have done wrong by the friendly neighbourhood car thief).
What it comes down to is the complicated set of phenomena that happens when, collectively, a society changes because its perceptions of itself change. In New York, for example, the fact that most people believed the streets and subways were unsafe and ungovernable meant people stayed off of them as much as possible – leaving a vacuum for criminals to fill and solidify the impression.
Similarly, in Sydney, happily-underemployed and undereducated youth are getting the message that their lawlessness will be tolerated and sympathetic newspaper articles will be written about them, so long as they make sure to bring plenty of mates and come from a suitably unfashionable suburb.
To counter this, Bob Carr should tell NSW Police that the next time violence of the sort that flared up in early March happens again, they are to do whatever it takes to restore order and make arrests, as quickly as possible.
Not only that, he should indicate that he will back them not just during the inevitable media firestorm, but also through the legal battles that will surely come from community activists and lawyers who think that there’s no reason that friends can’t come together occasionally over a few Molotov cocktails, and who think nothing of tying up a working-class cop’s career for years in the name of “social justice”.
Finally, he should press prosecutors to hold rioters accountable to the full extent of the law, and urge magistrates to set high bails and sentences for those arrested and found guilty. Even if it doesn’t deter other no-hopers, at least it detains those who are arrested on one night long enough that they can’t go out and start another round of mayhem the next.
The lessons of New York’s bad old days are not complicated: give cops the tools and backing they need to do their jobs. Prosecute minor infractions before they become major ones. And make honest people feel that it is they, and not the criminals, who have control over the streets. Unfortunately, these are lessons that cities like London – where burglars operate with such impunity that they actually prefer to target their victims when they are at home – have ignored in recent years. The growing number of riots throughout Sydney’s suburbs suggests that her leaders are going to have to learn these lessons themselves, the hard way.
TOUGH QUESTIONS: Apr 05, AU Edition
Going head-to-head with a reader over the Da Vinci Code fraud
Dear Mr Wishart: In reply to your article regarding Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, it would seem to me that Mr Brown has hit a nerve with you. I’m not sure I can put my religious beliefs into a box and label them nicely as one particular religion. I do, however, have a deep-seated interest in the Bible and all the people it talks about, especially Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
I say it hit a nerve because you were unable to support your views with scholarly investigative methods. In fact the only points raised in reply were from the very ‘book’ in question (and a few vague references to academics).
I’d like to comment on the two points you have issues with.
1) You have to remember that Mr Brown’s book is fiction with a few facts thrown in. “More than eighty gospels” is probably a bit of an exaggeration, but not for the reasons you stated. How then can you
explain the omission of the Gospel of Mary written by Mary Magdalene? She was there too! How is her Gospel any less credible or authentic than the others? You say in your article, “the first Christians - those who had seen Jesus alive, watched his crucifixion and witnessed the Resurrection...” This includes Mary Magdalene. I think it was because she was a woman and because although she was with Jesus throughout his ministry she has always been portrayed as the fallen woman, the repentant whore. I ask you to show me where in the Bible it says this. It doesn’t.
2) Jesus’ divinity. Perhaps another reason many gospels were not included in the Bible was that they showed Jesus as a real man, with needs and wants like any other man. There is no doubt in my mind that
he really did walk this Earth, as a mortal man, not a God. He ate, slept, and defecated, like we do. He loved and hated and cried and laughed, like we do. He bled when cut, like we do. He had human needs and human desires. How is it so inconceivable that he married too? That maybe he had a family? Funny how Mary Magdalene figures in this too.
The Council of Nicea decided what would be included in the Bible. This is fact. Research it. It was pointed out recently to me that all the gospels in the Bible tell the story while the ones which were omitted tell of the message. Which do you think is the more important? Have you actually read any of the other gospels? Doesn’t sound like it.
Is it fair to comment on something you have not investigated yourself?
Given your strong stance on the Bible and Jesus I was hoping you could explain a few things to me:
One story in the Bible which has always intrigued me is the story of when Jesus, Peter and Mary Magdalene go to the temple. Jesus and Mary go inside while Peter has to wait outside. Why? Why does Mary go inside and Peter stay outside? The only reason a woman would enter a temple is if she was a priestess herself. (Whoa! Another out-there theory to upset Mr Wishart). Think about it: she saw Jesus after his crucifixion. Why her, and how could she see a dead person? The only logical answer is that she was clairvoyant and she saw his spirit. Jesus could have been the most famous clairvoyant and healer we have ever seen. He was definitely an enlightened man. Whyis this such an impossible scenario?
It is never disputed that Jesus was of the House of David. How can he have a lineage from a mortal father (Joseph) and yet be divine with God as his father. How does this work? And if Mary was a virgin how come Jesus had brothers and sisters. He mentions them repeatedly throughout the Bible. Symbolic meanings, maybe? If so, does it not follow that other things may be symbolic also, like Jesus’ divinity, a virgin birth, miracles? No? Too many contradictions for me!
Dear Jane: I’m not sure after that whose nerve was hit hardest. You dismiss with a mere wave of the hand my assertion that the other gospels came from “dubious sources”. I was actually much stronger than that, stating they were frauds written by followers of a rival religion, Gnosticism. Nor were they written within the lifetime of anyone who witnessed the crucifixion or resurrection of Jesus: the Gnostic “gospels”, including the Gospel of Mary you refer to, were written from about 140AD onwards. The Gospels of Thomas, Mary, Peter and a range of others could not have been written by the real Thomas, Mary, Peter, etc., because those disciples died at least 60 years before the Gnostics wrote books in their name.
Karen King’s book on the Gospel of Mary is interesting but utterly worthless. It sheds no light on the real Jesus Christ or the real Mary Magdalene, and is no more biblically authentic than a Taiwanese Rolex.
To illustrate the pointlessness of treating the Gnostic “gospels” as authentic, consider this little dilemma. The Gospel of Peter purports to have been written by the Apostle Peter, except of course that he was actually executed by the Romans nearly 100 years earlier, and that his real gospel is the one written by Mark, who was Peter’s assistant in Rome. Mark’s Gospel was published and in circulation as early as only a decade after the crucifixion.
Regarding Mary Magdalene, you are entirely right that nowhere in the Bible does it say she was a “fallen woman”. Nor do I say it. This is a tradition of the Catholic Church, not founded in Scripture.
Regarding your second point on the divinity of Jesus: while Jesus was both human and divine, he was also sinless. Nowhere in either the Bible, or in contemporaneous extrabiblical accounts, is there a suggestion otherwise. You can be absolutely certain that if Jesus had a wife the real Gospels would have recorded it, because they would have regarded it as a relevant witness to the world. They certainly would not have covered it up, because that would indicate that the Gospel writers themselves were ashamed of Jesus, in which case why would they write the Gospels and why would they be willing to be executed in his name? Doesn’t make sense. Just another daft conspiracy theory from people like Dan Brown.
A wife would also have detracted from Jesus’ stated mission: he was not here to found an earthly kingdom or a divine royal lineage, he was here to sacrifice himself for humanity.
You also wrote: “The Council of Nicea decided what would be included in the Bible. This is fact. Research it.”
I’m sorry, but whomever you’re talking to knows nothing of early church history. And I have researched it. Again, the Council of Nicea was a mere rubber-stamp on what Christians since 50AD had already decided were the authentic Gospels and Epistles. It was no more within the power of the bishops at Nicea to suddenly reinvent Christianity in their own image than it is within my power to prevent a tide coming in. Copies of the New Testament pre-dating Nicea contain the same books and words as copies of the New Testament produced afterwards. As a further sign that the early church regarded only the real Gospels as authentic, you’ll find if you study the writings of the first Christians more than 200 years before the Council of Nicea, that between them they quoted almost the entire New Testament in their letters, and it matches what we have today.
In contrast, one of the early “fathers” of Gnosticism, Marcion, wrote a list of what he regarded as the authentic New Testament in 140AD, the so-called Marcionite Canon, which included the Gospel of Luke and ten of Paul’s Epistles. His list contained none of the Gnostic books, indicating they had not yet been crafted.
The Gnostic gospels were, and are, a crock. A religious flat-earth theory. They suffered their final defeat at Nicea along with their main promoter, a wayward bishop named Arius (much like Lloyd Geering or John Shelby Spong today). Their reappearance today says more about the state of denial some people are prepared to live in than anything about their actual worth.
The primary message of Jesus Christ, and attested to by the genuine Gospels, is that God took on human form, walked the earth in Galilee and gave his life that those who believed in that Act and its significance might repent of their sins and be saved to a resurrection life after death. First and foremost, the message of Christ was spiritual, not social. Good works follow faith, they do not precede it or supersede it.
Concerning Mary Magdalene, it may be my eyes, but I’m unable to find a reference to Jesus, Mary and Peter going to the Temple and Peter having to remain outside. However, the main thrust of your point is that Mary was only allowed in because she was a Priestess/Clairvoyant, because other women were not permitted.
With respect, you are mistaken. There are numerous references in the Gospels to ordinary women entering the Temple to pray and worship. There is no suggestion in the authentic Gospels that Magdalene was a clairvoyant, but assuming that she was for the sake of your argument, I can only presume that the 11 surviving male disciples and around 500 others who witnessed the resurrection appearances were all clairvoyants as well? Even Peter, whom you say had to remain outside?
On to your other questions:
How was Jesus directly descended from David when Joseph was only his adoptive father?
Through his mother, Mary. The genealogy in Luke 3 is via Mary’s father, Heli, back to Nathan, a son of King David and his wife Bathsheba. Jesus was doubly blessed however because under Jewish inheritance rules Joseph was “of the House of David” and so too was his adopted son Jesus.
If Mary was a virgin, how did Jesus have brothers and sisters?
The “brothers and sisters” of Jesus followed later as the full biological children of Mary and Joseph. The idea that Mary was an eternal virgin is, again, a tradition of the Catholic Church not supported by the Bible itself.
Divinity, virgin birth, miracles? No!
For a woman who is prepared to accept, with a lot less evidence, clairvoyancy and ghosts, you then grapple with supernatural themes in the Bible and find them too hard to believe? Sorry Jane, you contradict yourself here. Once you accept any possibility of a supernatural realm you are forced to accept all of its potential, just like you can’t be just a little bit pregnant.
If you wish to read a well-researched book on the authenticity and accuracy of the Gospels in order to get a balanced view, I can recommend Craig Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Gary Habermas’ The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence For The Life Of Christ, or Josh McDowell’s New Evidence That Demands A Verdict, which should all be available at your local library.