Aliens in their own land: Sovereignty and the tent embassy

Australia does a nice line in snafu and this last week has provided a juicy example as the Australia Day prime ministerial dragging fiasco continues to spiral out of control. These events have thrown light on just how screwed political discourse in this country has become. It involves any number of major issues – inadequate security procedures, police incompetence, political misconduct, media manipulation, treatment of Aboriginal issues and subsequent substitution of white fights masquerading as concern for those Aboriginal issues. Not that Aboriginal leaders would be surprised their issues once criticised would then be ignored. It was ever thus since the Aboriginal Tent embassy that supposedly started all the current fuss (and now being ignored in the “who knew what” adviser scandal) was created in 1972.Just before Christmas, I stumbled on the tent embassy when I was in Canberra. It was around 8.30am and I was on my way to visit the old parliament museum when I found the embassy at its doorstep. The museum didn’t open until 9am so I had time to wander around the site. Unlike the grandness of its near neighbour the Chinese embassy, the Aboriginal tent embassy is a low-key affair. Yet however shabby it looked, it seemed it had a right to be there. Successive governments and administrators have found its mixture of politics, symbolism and theatre difficult to counter. In a corner of the park in front of the old parliament looking across to the War Memorial lies the embassy, its flimsy tarpaulin dotted with signs protesting the lack of a treaty and the need for self determinism.

The camp proclaimed itself as a dry area and in the middle of the garden lay a giant fire circle with an Aboriginal flag and a sculpture of the word “sovereignty” all looking out across the lake. More than the tent, it was this “sacred fire” of sovereignty that gave the embassy an imposing air of permanence. The use of the word embassy gives it a stateliness that is contested by the Australian Government, but not to the point of seeking its removal. There was no sign of any cops about to shut down a long-standing “occupy movement”. Nor was there seemingly any movement there to disoccupy. There was no sign of life that morning though presumably there were people asleep inside the tents. It was all peaceful and remarkably normal.

The tent began in 1972 in frustration at the McMahon Coalition Government’s refusal to recognise land rights. Hopes were high for Aboriginal land rights after winning the 1967 referendum to be counted at the ballot box. But five years later it was clear the Coalition was not about to disturb powerful interests. All McMahon would agree to was “general purpose leases” which would not affect existing land or mining titles. Most of the land titles were granted under common law “terra nullius” which assumed nobody lived on the land before the British granted title. The mining titles took precedence because, as McMahon said, they were “in the national interest”.

One of the embassy founders, Gary Foley, said McMahon’s laws made Aborigines “aliens in their own land”. Like other aliens they needed an embassy which meant it had to be in Canberra. The notion of the ramshackle embassy as an “eyesore” has been central to its validity since the start. As John Newfong said in 1972: “If people think this is an eyesore, well it is the way it is on Government settlements.” Aboriginal policy was an eyesore that needed to stay in the public eye. Governments tried to remove the embassy by use of police force, invoking territory ordinances and planning guidelines, direct negotiation and simply turning a blind eye with the hope that the embassy would fizzle out. None worked. In tandem with another symbol invented the same year – the black, red and yellow flag – the black power activists’ tent reminded white Australia it was built on shaky foundations.

Ever since 1972, the embassy has only occasional impinged on wider conscience. Paul Kelly’s monumental The March of Patriots covered the Keating and Howard eras in great detail but made no mention of the embassy, even though the embassy became permanent just after the elevation of Keating as PM. Aboriginal affairs were a telling difference between Keating and Howard and deeply affected their tenure as prime ministers. Yet there were similarities too. Both men were affronted by the notion there was “another Australia” outside their jurisdiction though neither was foolish enough to raise in public the notion the “ambassadors” should be removed.

It was not politicians but judges who changed the law during Keating and Howard’s time. The Mabo and Wik judgements ended the fiction of terra nullius and helped forge a proper agreement over native title. 200 years of wrong could not be righted but some compensation was needed. Keating offered an apology in his 1994 Redfern speech but was hamstrung by his own side (corrupt WA Labor Premier Brian Burke had killed Bob Hawke’s Land Rights proposal in the 1980s). Keating was voted out in 1996, but not before getting a Mabo agreement through parliament over the objection of the Coalition.

Howard inherited Keating’s Stolen Generation Report that documented the extent of Australian 20th century interference in Aboriginal affairs. Ever conscious of the power of symbols, Howard could not bring himself to apologise. His later NT intervention was paternalism writ large masked under a pretence of preventing sexual violence. Despite the scale of the response (which the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments have been unable to undo), there was never a sense they were dealing with equal partners. The prospect of a treaty similar to Canada and New Zealand seems as remote as ever.

The embassy supporting that Treaty celebrated two notable anniversaries Day last week. The embassy has intermittently existed on the lawns since Australia Day 1972 and permanently since Australia Day 1992, so it either 40 or 20 years old according to taste. These anniversaries are appropriate moments to examine its worthiness. My view is that the overwhelming evidence suggests the “other Australia” still exists and therefore the indigenous protesters that live on the site are right to seek diplomatic relations. In all key life indicators, indigenous people lag behind the rest of the population thanks to two centuries of massacres, paternalism and benign neglect. As a defeated people since colonial times, they are under no obligation to accept white Australian rule as a fait accompli.

The howls of protest that accompanied Tony Abbott’s claim the embassy’s time may be over, reflect a deeper concern that as Prime Minister he would not advance Aboriginal interests. He might also, despite the denials, be prepared to use his power to shut it down “occupy-style” using the media-generated confected rage against the “riot” that apparently caused the prime minister to lose to trip over and lose a shoe. The Courier-Mail front page called it a “day of shame” without saying who should be ashamed. “Australia Day 2012 will be remembered for scenes of a terrified looking Ms Gillard being dragged away to safety,” the paper thundered. Whose fault was it? They didn’t say.

Instead they hinted at it. They said police clashed with protesters from the nearby aboriginal tent embassy and the two leaders were shoved into Ms Gillard’s bulletproof car and taken to “a safe place”. Police seemed to have overreacted in the way they escorted the politicians from the premises. Gillard and Abbott were at the Lobby restaurant presenting emergency services medals when “100 protesters surrounded the building”. Alerted by Labor apparatchiks (who presumably knew Gillard was there also), they came to protest against an answer Abbott gave in a press conference earlier that day. Marxist march participant John Passant said witnesses reported that during a speech a woman interrupted to say Abbott had said the Tent Embassy should be moved on. “He was 50 metres away with his twin in racism, Julia Gillard,” Passant said. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. When protesters made the 50m journey to the Lobby, they banged on the glass walls. The chants started as “Shame, shame!” and “Racists, racists” and then became a steady “Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land.”

They were protesting an answer Abbott gave in a doorstep earlier that day. Some journalist (unnamed in the press transcript) asked him: “Is the Tent Embassy still relevant or should it move?”. Abbott responded by saying he could understand why the embassy was established but a lot had changed for the better. “We had the historic apology just a few years ago, one of the genuine achievements of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister,” Abbott said. “We had the proposal which is currently for national consideration to recognise indigenous people in the Constitution. I think the indigenous people of Australia can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian and yes, I think a lot has changed since then and I think it probably is time to move on from that.”

No one asked the obvious follow-up question: Did he mean moving the tent on? We don’t know because the media circus moved on to Albanese’s Hollywood faux pas and the embassy answer hung out there to dry. Gillard’s people were on to the political implications quickly. The implied answer, Abbott might act as PM to “move on” the embassy, took little time to filter out.

Gillard’s media adviser Tony Hodges told Unions ACT secretary Kim Sattler and Sattler told the demonstrators. When they got to the restaurant, there were unedifying scenes of Aborigines clashing with police but no evidence to suggest violence was intended on Abbott or Gillard. It was the mob violence that wasn’t. All they wanted was for both leaders to talk to them. The prime minister’s security detail took a different view. In this risk averse culture they took the view she should leave quickly. On camera Gillard accepts their advice and asked them whether they should also inform Abbott. She is then shown on camera letting Abbott know they were “in it together”.

Instead of confronting the protesters, the prime minister was dragged unceremoniously away. The footage of these shots showed the politicians, their security detail and news cameras. The protesters were well back. World media were entranced by the footage particularly the fairytale angle of the “lost shoe”. Behind her, Abbott was also ushered away quickly without any wardrobe malfunctions. Abbott walked away without injury but Gillard lost not only her shoe, but her dignity, her press officer, her backroom probity and the political high ground. Abbott was able to say, “At the very least the Prime Minister should be offering an apology to everyone who was in that awards ceremony.” But he did not clarify what Gillard had to apologise for except perhaps for incompetent staff who did not think through the consequences of their actions. Hodges paid the penalty and Abbott should stop playing put upon. He would have known fully what mischief his statement could cause on the Australia Day anniversary.

Meanwhile the 40 year sovereignty battle associated with the embassy has been damned by association. Since the so-called “riot”, influential voices like Bob Carr, Warren Mundine and David Penberthy have called for its abolition. None have attracted the opprobrium of Abbott but perhaps they should have. The time has not yet come to fold up the tent. The eyesore has not been treated. Sorry day has come and gone but the justice of sovereignty is no nearer for this continent’s oldest and most misunderstood inhabitants. Until it happens, they will remain aliens in their own land.

Red Hot Pokies: The politics of gambling

“The last time I played a gaming machine I intend to play for one hour and spend no more than $50. I blew $500 in six hours that day, my entire weekly pay. It happened despite my knowing the odds of winning a large payout were minuscule and it happened despite my very best intentions and determination to stick to a spending limit that I could afford on that day” (Sue Pinkerton, Committee Hansard, 1 February 2011)

Gambling is a $19b industry in Australia. The centre of attention of policy reform focuses on the “pokies” of which there are 200,000 in Australia (half in NSW) and an estimated 600,000 people them at least once a week. Some 95,000 of these (almost one in six) is considered problem gamblers and they incur social costs of up to $4.7 billion a year. The 2010 Productivity Commission report into gambling noted the technology changes of recent years have made it easier to lose large amounts of money quickly on the pokies.

They recommended a six year program which would impose an upper cash feeding limit into the pokies of $20 (currently up to $10,000) and lower the individual bet limit to $1 (currently $10). They also suggested longer shutdown hours, warning messages of likely losses, relocating ATMs and most controversially, mandatory pre-commitment (MPC). MPC requires lock-out when limits are reached, cooling-off periods for limit increases, safeguards to prevent gamblers from machine hopping and have an effective self-exclusion function.

In a rare moment of poetic licence, the Productivity Commission compares the notion of MPC to Ulysses binding himself to the mast of the ship to avoid the temptation of the call of the Sirens. Gambling has few market responses that enable individual pre-commitment to help people control their habit. Most gamblers rely on willpower but research has found continuous gambling leads to a loss of control, particularly when in an environment where alcohol is served. However the PC admitted the success of pre-commitment measures depended on their effectiveness, monetary and non-monetary cost (including erosions of autonomy) and addressing privacy concerns.

In 2011 the Senate produced its first report on a design and implementation of an MPC system for pokies. MPC would apply to big venues (>15 machines) and only to the high intensity machines capable of gobbling up thousands of dollars at a sitting. The slow $1 machines would be outside its purview – so it does not mean a licence to gamble. The MPC system would be introduced in 2014, require players to set a maximum loss in advance, lock out when that amount is reached, cool off before increasing a limit, have safeguards to prevent “machine hopping” and have an effective self-exclusion function.

While the report was well received by social groups, vested interest groups like Club Australia exploded in righteous indignation against what it called “draconian reforms”. The powerful club industry, with 4 000 clubs and 10 million members, launched a multi-media scare campaign called “Won’t Work Will Hurt”. They said MPC meant every poker machine player must show identification and register to obtain a card before they could play. They said the Government had agreed to work with the industry prior to the election on pokie reforms, and supported the introduction of voluntary pre-commitment. They said it wouldn’t help problem gamblers who would obtain the card and set high or no limits. Recreational gamblers wouldn’t apply for the card and would stop playing causing revenue loss that would devastate the clubs and pubs. They also put the squeeze on 30 Labor MPs in marginal electorates where pokies are prevalent.

Yet the Government might have weathered this campaign but for the fact it lacked bipartisan support in parliament. The Coalition’s policy paper on gambling tries to have it both ways. The report says less than one per cent of the Australian population are problem gamblers which equates to 220,000 people (the productivity commission says 115,000 are problem gamblers and another 280,000 are at “moderate risk”) while it is at pains to note 150,000 are employed in this “entertainment industry”. The Coalition also seeks to put a positive spin on the Productivity Commission report by saying problem rates are falling despite also admitting the one percent account for up to 60 percent of all gambling in Australia.

The Tony Abbott gambling policy involves a discussion paper proposing voluntary pre-commitment scheme, improved counselling services for problem gamblers and better training for gaming venue staff. It was roundly condemned by Independent MP Andrew Wilkie who said the paper “contained lies peddled by poker machine interests.” He said voluntary pre-commitment was a “nonsense” solution which would have no cashflow impact on clubs. He also hinted then he might be persuaded to water down his agreement with the Gillard Government.

Wilkie had been instrumental in installing the Government with an agreement he signed with Gillard on 2 September 2010. That agreement got Wilkie’s vote in parliament in return for $220 million for Royal Hobart Hospital and pokie reforms that included a full pre-commitment scheme by 2014, warning displays on machines and a $250 daily limit on pokie ATMs. A crucial date was 1 February 2012 by which the government had to advise Wilkie on the legal advice of getting the legislation through.

In the last act of parliament in December 20111, Gillard installed Liberal MP Peter Slipper as Speaker effectively given her a two vote buffer in the knife-edge parliament. I said at the time I didn’t think she would renegotiate the Wilkie agreement because I thought Gillard would still require his vote on occasion. I was wrong. On Saturday, Gillard announced a winding back of the proposal. There would be a trial in Canberra and MPC technology would be introduced to every pokie. The Government claimed unconvincingly it was reneging on the deal because it would not get through parliament.

Wilkie was unimpressed. He responded saying he had withdrawn support from the government. Wilkie said he could no longer guarantee supply and confidence for the Government because Gillard couldn’t honour the pre-commitment promise by end 2014. “I regard the Prime Minister to be in breach of the written agreement she signed, leaving me no option but to honour my word and end my current relationship with her Government,” Wilkie said. “Our democracy is simply too precious to trash with broken promises and backroom compromises. So I will walk, take my chances and so be it.” Whether it means he will now vote for Abbott – whom he has little respect for – is another matter. It is not just Andrew Wilkie who will be taking his chances. Unlike Sue Pinkerton and her pokies addiction, all bets are off in Australia parliament in 2012.

Hadrian’s Wallet: Scotland’s independence referendum and oil

Depending on who’s talking, the prospect of an independent Scotland would see either the arrival of a new, modern and confident state or it will be fed into the Euro-blender to be destroyed forever. The idea of an independent Scotland is not new – it dates back to those unhappy with the original Act of Union in 1707. What is new is the proposed referendum in 2014 to give Scots a chance to vote on the matter.

The governing Scottish National Party put the cat among the constitutional pigeons with their announcement on 10 January they would hold a referendum in autumn 2014. The referendum will ask two questions. The first is whether there should be an extension of the powers and responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament, short of independence; while the second asks whether the Scottish Parliament should “also have its powers extended to enable independence to be achieved”.

In many respects, the controversy over the referendum is a storm in a tea-cup. All the polls suggest that voters will turn down the proposal. YouGov’s polling from 1990 to 2009 show support for full independence hovering around the high 20s to low 30s percentiles. A clearer majority – though never more than 60 percent – are happier with more tax raising powers for the existing Scottish parliament created in 1999. The referendum that created that parliament two years earlier showed most Scots wanted power over their own taxes (currently they can vary the basic rate of personal income tax by a maximum of 3p in the pound). The issue with that was as First Minister Alex Salmond said in October 2010, “there is no point in being a pocket money parliamanet when the pocket money stops.”

The 2011 study of Scottish attitudes showed 70 percent of the population saw themselves as Scottish first compared to about 15 percent who thought they were British. The study also showed that support for increased devolution is also on the up but there was a lot of ambiguous findings on specifics that show there is much to play for. Specific questions on who should pay for what and by what amount narrowed opinion in a way that was rather different than the ungranulated question of whether you support nationalist or unionist.

Opinion is also divided as to whether Scotland would do better alone with its annual £6.5b North Sea oil wealth. According to Michael Moore, the secretary of state for Scotland, the year on year variations of oil prices in 2011 were better managed in a UK wide economy where Scotland could share in the risks as well as rewards. But Scottish finance secretary John Swinney disagreed saying Scotland contributed far more to the UK Exchequer than its share of population which underlined the strength of Scotland’s finances and the opportunities of independence. Scottish opinion polls consistently support the latter view with most Scots thinking those south of Hadrian’s Wall do better from the Union than they do.

Yet opinion polls are less clear on the economic benefits of independence. Most people think they would pay slightly more tax under an Edinburgh administration and there is no consensus on whether the nation would be better off financially. The debate reflects a strong and complex intertwining of English, Scottish and British traditions that make most Scots slightly ambivalent about their nationality.

Unlike the Irish Act of Union a century later, the English-Scottish Act of Union of 1702 was a genuine marriage of near-equals. Scottish kings had sat on the throne of England for over a hundred years (until ousted by the Glorious Revolution). Scotland was still the minor party in the marriage, and as in the case of Ireland, bribery was needed to get the Act passed in Edinburgh. Scotland was still reeling from the economic catastrophe of the Darien Scheme which hoped to set up a Scottish colony in Panama. But the Act of Union was good for Scotland; it gave its economy free trade with England and led directly to the Scottish Enlightenment of the mid 1700s. Thinkers like David Hume and Adam Smith had an immense effect not only on Scotland but on the newly United Kingdom and beyond.

Scots became a driving force in the new British Empire, despite the continued rebellions of the highlanders. The lowlands were transformed by the Industrial Revolution with linen, coal and steel and a massive financial centre. Glasgow became a powerhouse city based on shipbuilding and railways. Scottish cities paid a terrible price for their industrialisation in World War II with extrensive bombing by the Luftwaffe. The deindustrialisation of the post-war years was balanced by the discovery of oil in the North Sea in 1970. Though production has fallen in recent years, a 2010 report said there was still 25 billion barrels of oil in Scottish waters, though they are in harder to reach areas near the Shetlands.

The importance of oil in any border negotiation between England and Scotland cannot be underestimated. 85% of British oil is in Scottish waters. The nationalist site Oil of Scotland claims Westminster moved Scotland’s marine boundaries in 1999 from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Carnoustie “illegally making 6000 miles of Scotland’s waters English.” The website called the Scottish Adjacent Waters Boundaries Order 1999 an “unjust act secretly passed, without the consent of the Scottish People” that took 15% of oil and gas revenues out of the Scottish sector of the North Sea and £2.2 billion out of the Scottish economy. “This lost revenue is more than the proposed £35 Billion Scottish budget cuts for the next 15 years,” the group said.

100 Years On: Douglas Mawson and Australian identity forged in the Antarctic

Today, Prime Minister Gillard invoked “the spirit of Mawson” when she visited the site of the University of Tasmania’s new state-of-the-art Marine Research institute today. The site is due to open in 2014 and Gillard timed her visit on the celebrations of Douglas Mawson’s 100th anniversary as leader of Australia’s first Antarctic exhibition. Gillard said the Tasmanian facility committed Australia to the Antarctic in “a history 100 years old but with a great future in front of it.”

Leaving irony at the future of history aside, Mawson is a man well worth commemorating as a great Australian scientist and explorer. Gallipoli is commonly the moment when the newly-formed white commonwealth of Australia was supposed to be forged in battle. Certainly the number of dead that forlorn Turkish campaign caused was enough to invoke nationwide mourning, but Mawson’s earlier and less deadly adventure did much also to put a young nation on the map – and expand Australian thinking about the map and its place on it. His 100th anniversary celebrations in the Antarctic were delayeda few days due to bad weather, another irony that would not have been lost on the intrepid explorer.Douglas Mawson like most Australians of the time (except the Irish) Mawson considered himself an Englishman. Mawson was of gritty Yorkshire stock born in Shipley in 1882. The family were cloth merchants who moved to Sydney while Douglas was still a toddler. He was educated at Rooty Hill and at Fort Street Model School. He attended the University of Sydney during the tumultuous change of century (1899-1902). While Australia federated and fought the Boer War, he studied mining engineering.

After graduating he was appointed as a junior demonstrator in chemistry at the university. He went into the field and did a six month geological survey of the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) under the island’s deputy commissioner Captain E. G. Rason. Mawson’s ‘The geology of the New Hebrides‘ was one of the first major works of its kind on Melanesia. Back in Australia he resumed studies in geology and was appointed lecturer in mineralogy and petrology in the University of Adelaide. It was here he became interested in glacial geology, particularly of SA. Mawson cemented his reputation by coming up with new classifications for the mineralised Precambrian rocks of the Barrier Range.

In November 1907, Ernest Shackleton met him in Adelaide. Shackleton was there as leader of the British Antarctic Expedition heading south. Shackleton wanted to be first to the South Pole, something that did not interest Mawson particularly. Yet Mawson immediately wanted to join him so he could explore the glaciations of the southern continent. Shackleton was impressed and made him physicist.

By March 1908 Mawson was on top of the volcano Mt Erebus in Antarctica, in the first group of men to climb the continent’s highest peak. While Shackleton and his team pressed onto the pole, Mawson and Edgeworth David travelled 2000km to be the first to reach the south magnetic pole. They survived the return trip despite lack of food, exhaustion and Mawson’s fall into a deep crevasse. Shackleton failed in the main exhibition and they returned to Australia chastened, but with Mawson’s reputation enhanced.

Cooling (or more likely warming) his heels back at the University of Adelaide, he heard Scott was planning another assault on the pole. Mawson asked for a ride to explore the coast west of Cape Adare. Scott refused but invited him to go to the pole with him. That did not interest Mawson so negotiations foundered. After Scott left for the south in 1910, Mawson launched his own exhibition to be called the Australasian Antarctic Expedition.

He set sail in December 1911 and made three crucial stops in the name of Australia. At Macquarie Island he established a base where they would be the first to relay radio messages from the Antarctic. Then on the continent itself, he established a Main Base at Commonwealth Bay and a Western Base on the Shackleton Ice Shelf. All three sites were dedicated to science: geology, cartography, meteorology, aurora, geomagnetism, biology and marine science.

The Base at Commonwealth Bay was ready by February 1912. Mawson went exploring in the Far East of Antarctica but both his fellow explorers died on the harsh journey. Though Mawson seriously debilitated, he cut his sledge in half, discarded everything except his geological specimens and records and dragged it 160km over 30 days to get back to Main Base. He was forced to stay the winter and continued explorations to 1913.

Back home in 1915, Mawson told his story in “The Home of the Blizzard”. It was a sensational read but a Great War meant Australian attention was preoccupied elsewhere and Mawson did not get the credit his extraordinary adventures, exploration, innovation and scientific work deserved. Mawson served in that war as embarkation officer for shipments of high explosives and poison gas from Britain to Russia.

After the war he worked for the White Russians before returning to Adelaide when the Communists won the revolution. Mawson returned to the University of Adelaide to spend 30 years researching South Australian Precambrian rocks of the Flinders Ranges. He also pored through his polar findings. He collected so much data from the trip, it took him that same 30 years to complete his “Scientific Reports”, in twenty-two volumes. He led two more southern journeys for the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition in 1929-30 and 1930-31 which were both sea-based only. His mapping work was crucial to the Australian Antarctic Territory Acceptance Act of 1933 and the Australian Antarctic Territory three years later.

Mawson retired in 1952 to Melbourne and died of a cerebral haemorrhage at his Brighton home six years later on 14 October 1958, aged 78. By then Australia’s first permanent Antarctic base was established at Holme Bay in Mac Robertson Land. The base was Mawson’s idea and after World War II he convinced foreign minister Doc Evatt to set one up. The base was founded in 1954 and named for Mawson. It was an obvious but deserved honour for a man many see as the greatest polar explorer ever. By 1984, Mawson’s reputation was secured with his place on the $100 Australian note. It was something you could put your money on: Mawson was a great Australian and a man who always put science first.

The problem with Queensland’s Local Health and Hospital Networks

I was saddened to hear today about the death of a man I met only once but have known about for a long time. Before I was headed to Roma a couple of years ago, a friend from IBM days told me I simply had to meet his cousin. His cousin was a named John Young who my friend told me was involved in the Roma airport and later the hospital and health system.By the time I got to Roma, his cousin had mostly retreated (retired is not the right word) to his property some 50km south of Roma where he worked the land. It was well over a year before I got to meet him and this fact was always discussed whenever I met his cousin in Brisbane. I finally got to meet John Young at a meeting of the local Health Community Council

HCCs were a sort of half way health house set up by state Labor in 1991. For 20 years, HCCs operated geographically at just-above-local council level (there were 36 in Queensland) dealing on the ground with patients and their hospitals. They were the eyes and ears of the health system becoming aware of, and fixing local problems. They talked to the patients and they talked to the staff but relied on their soft power with authorities to get things done rather than any legislation.

Last year the Queensland Government disbanded HCCs in a major revamp of Queensland Health. From 1 July 2012 they will be replaced by 17 Local Health and Hospital Networks (with the unfriendly acronym of LHHNs). These new agencies will be responsible for bigger areas and will have more powers.

The old Roma HCC represented the views of the communities of the Maranoa and Balonne regional councils. They also monitor the performance and quality of public health services in these regions. John was the chair of the Roma HCC and I finally met him at a public meeting at Wallumbilla Hospital in February 2011. Only one couple showed up from the general public, the rest were there from the general hospital but John showed no disappointment with the small turn-out. He diligently explained what their role was and what assistance he could provide. He carefully listened to the couple’s issues with the health system and gave them options on what they could do to improve their situation.

He also talked logistics with the hospital staff. He made whoever he spoke to feel important and he gave suggestions to solve issues. Everything was important and surmountable. At the end of the meeting, he and I shared a joke or two about our mutual friend/cousin before going our separate ways. I never saw him again.

The HCCs were disbanded in June 2011. By June 2012 the will be replaced by 17 Local Health and Hospital Networks (LHHNs) which will have a strong local decision-making and accountability function. There is a 12-month gap while Queensland Health rolls them out with five already established including ones in Brisbane and the Gold Coast. The Government said this was a major reform with profound implications for the quality of health care in Queensland.

The LHHNs will be statutory bodies with Governing Councils, accountable to the local community and Queensland Parliament. In August 2011, I editorialised in my paper the changes were good ones with more money, more beds, more doctors and nurses available at a local level to support an overburdened system. But I said finding the right local people to go on these volunteer boards would be tough. The board members will have the huge responsibility for managing the operation and performance of the hospitals within the network. While I didn’t mention him by name, I thought John Young would have been ideal for the local board.

It will never happen now. This morning I found out he had died of a heart attack in his paddock yesterday. I was shocked and immediately texted his cousin to offer my condolences. He rang back within minutes. I was worried he had not heard the news prior to my text but he had almost found out in real time. John’s wife had relayed the terrible news on the phone to the wider family in updates. John had a fall and it doesn’t look good, she reported. Then a few minutes later, “he’s gone”. He was just 59 years old.

John’s death was a tragedy for the family but it was also bad news for the wider community. I don’t know if he nominated to be part of the local LHHN, but they need people like him if they are going to work. I don’t blame him if he didn’t nominate. The LHHNs are a far bigger ask than the HCCs, they cover a wider area and have greater powers. Members need skills in business, finance, legal and human resources expertise wanted as well as the delivery of clinical services. All this in volunteer and most unpaid work. Reform is needed, but for these new LHHNs to work, we need people like John on them – people with knowledge, understanding and the ability to listen to and act on problems, in short, people with a vocation for health. Our wellbeing depends on it.

Queensland election 2012: Bligh to go down with the ship

With everyone expecting the good ship Labor to sink without trace in this year’s Queensland State election, the biggest unknown is the timing. Anna Bligh made history in the 2009 election by being the first woman to win a poll outright at state level. But it seems highly unlikely she will be Premier for much longer. Most polls are predicting at least a 10 percent swing against Labor which if applied uniformly would mean the loss of 38 seats and remaining with just a rump of 13 seats in an 89-seat parliament.
(photo: Derek Barry)
There may be some narrowing between now and polling date but not enough to change the outcome. The election defeat is less a matter of if than when. Legally Anna Bligh can wait until 16 June before calling the election but it is unlikely she will hold out to the bitter end, however tempting it might be. As former premier Peter Beattie arguedlast week, such a strategy would allow LNP leader Campbell Newman to run an campaign against the government, claiming its time up for the people to decide the future of Queensland. “The government would be seen to be running scared if there was a delayed election and a winning momentum would move solidly to Newman and the LNP,” Beattie argued. He said Bligh needs to go before the third anniversary on 21 March.The problem is that that this year is also the end of the four year terms of Queensland councils. Electoral Commission Queensland has to manage both elections and wants a clear six-week gap between them so they can best manage their finite resources. Nearly everyone in local government and media is convinced the Council elections are happening on Saturday, 31 March yet I have seen no formal statement to that effect by the ECQ (whose websitemerely says “March 2012” or the State Government.In a New Year’s Day article in the Courier-Mail, Darrel Giles was convinced the council election would be on 31 March which would mean no state election between 18 February and 12 May. But Electoral Commissioner David Kerslake denies this 6-week window in the same article and I cannot imagine Bligh accepting such a demand, no matter how well meaning. An election on the same day would be too big a logistical headache and might remind some angry voters who foisted the unpopular council amalgamations on them.

But a four weeks’ gap is not beyond the ECQ’s ability to manage. Saturday, March 3 is 7 weeks away and gives enough time to Labor to nut out their election strategy and announce candidates in each electorate before running a three or four week campaign. The Queensland ALP website is surprisingly silent on candidate details with only a list of sitting members and the “renew for 2012” option taking you to a membership form. Here in Roma the party have yet to announce a candidate for the seat of Warrego, which is one of the safest LNP seats in the Queensland (though won by Labor as recently as 1974). It seems clear that Labor will be investing all its resources into defending sitting members rather than encourage new talent to take on other seats.

Such a strategy seems wise enough given the need to contain a heavy defeat. Antony Green’s December analysis mapped the 2010 Federal Election result onto state seats and even with the caveat State Labor do better than Federal Labor in Queensland, the news is grim. Green expects Labor to be wiped out on the Gold Coast and in Cairns, lose two of three in Townsville, and also lose Cook, Mount Isa and Whitsunday. He said Labor would also lose many seats in western Brisbane, and key seats in the south-east corridor to the Gold Coast and north towards the Sunshine Coast.

The prospect of such a landslide has left Campbell Newman in the pretty position of not having to sell many policies to win. Newman’s biggest asset is he has not been in Government 20 of the last 22 years. His LNP website rebadged cornily as Can Do Queensland is bursting with news and information about its fresh-faced candidates, many of whom will soon become first-time parliamentarians. But the policies such as “build a four pillar economy” are light on detail about what exactly they would do differently in areas such as tourism, CSG, the environment and education. Newman can afford to deal in generalities and be a small target while Labor faces the hostility of an electorate fed up with its longevity, geed on by a media that wants to see a change of government.

Larvatus Prodeo’s Mark Bahnisch would not be among those wanting a change of government but even he concedes its likelihood in a series of perceptive posts exploring the lie of the land in the lead up to the election. I agree with most of his conclusions except when he says a Newman failure in Ashgrove would mean an implosion of the LNP state wide campaign will almost necessarily follow.

It is entirely possible the LNP could win by a landslide and yet fail to take Ashgrove. Kate Jones is proving a skilful and dangerous opponent. She knows the territory and quit cabinet to focus on retaining her seat. The news One Nation is putting up a candidate, shows it will be unpredictable and may act as a “first past the post” contest. Kate Jones is popular – particularly among the young and the greens who are likely to give her a strong second preference – despite optional preferential voting – even if they vote Greens number 1. If only another 30 or 40 jaded looking Labor members had her enthusiasm, then defeat might not be a fait accompli.

David Bowie turns 65: A personal recollection

My first memory of David Bowie is when I was a young teenager at the house of my two older cousins. They influenced my early musical tastes which meant I had an early eclectic collection that featured Mike Oldfield, Steve Hillage, Rory Gallagher and Rush. Among their albums was a strange looking LP with an unforgettable cover photo. There was a man and a woman both shown naked from the chest upwards, the man with big bright red hair staring pensively straight into the camera while the woman, her head resting gently on his shoulder, seemed almost forlorn. The album was called “Pinups” and the artist announced as just “Bowie”. I didn’t know whether “Bowie” was him or her or both of them but desperately wanted to know more. Her face was familiar but it was his voice that transfixed me from the first listen.Later my cousin told me he was David Bowie and she was the model Twiggy, whom I remembered seeing on television. What was she doing on the cover, I asked. He didn’t know. It would be many years before I found out why though I figured Bowie must have had a thing for Twiggy when she got name checked (“Twig the Wonder Kid”) in Drive In Saturday on the album Aladdin Sane. That album and Pinups were released within six months of each other in 1973 when I was nine years old.

It was probably around late 1978 or so when my cousins first exposed me to his work and his astonishing different coloured eyes. The following year I got my first summer job porting cases around the Grand Hotel in Tramore for ten quid a week. I stayed at my auntie’s in Tramore and for the first time in my life I had discretionary spending money. All that summer I spent my wages on David Bowie’s back collection. There was Pinups, of course and Aladdin Sane. But there were lots more besides and I immediately loved them all.

Space Oddity (1969) featured the hit single of the same name. The tune was instantly familiar from radio but I never realised it was the same guy who shared a possibly naked album cover with Twiggy. There was The Man Who Sold the World (1971) full of raucous rocking anthems and the album that Roy Carr and Charles Murray later told me in their “Bowie: An Illustrated Record” (1981) was where the Bowie story really began. The cover art of Bowie in a dress was too much for 1970s Catholic Ireland (as it was for less conservative Britain) and we all had to make do with the “leg up” photo from the Ziggy era.

Hunky Dory (1971) quickly established itself as a personal favourite. While cycling in the countryside near Waterford I would sing loudly each song in the order they appeared on the album, much to the bemusement of the cows in the nearby fields who had to put up with my squealing out every previous moment of “Oh You Pretty Things“. It was pure pop, Bowie style and I loved every minute of it. I’m not sure the cows shared my tastes.

Next up was Ziggy Stardust (1972). While this was the album – and the persona – that made Bowie a household name, it was never one I particularly loved. I thought the concept album idea was boring and none of the songs haunted their way into my conscience as did his other albums of the same era. I did like the instruction on the cover “To be played at maximum volume” but I never risked the wrath of mum and dad by actually complying.

As stated before the 1973 albums were my entry point to Bowie. Not until I read Carr & Murray, did I realise Pinups was full of 1960s covers and even recently when I heard Ray Davies blast out “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” my first reaction was to think the Kinks did a great cover of Bowie’s record. Aladdin Sane, however, was pure Bowie and utterly haunting from the first listen. I was entranced by Bowie’s apocalyptic vision from the subtitle of the title song Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?) expecting World War III to break out any day. But it was Mike Garson’s piano in the final track Lady Grinning Soul that penetrated deepest with Bowie crooning “She will be your living end” grinning its way into my soul. It’s still my all time favourite Bowie song.

Then it was Diamond Dogs from 1974, another overrated album by my lights. I was never a huge fan of the singles Rebel, Rebel or Diamond Dogs though I loved the epic sweep of the Sweet Thing trilogy. Young Americans from 1975 was much more to my liking. Very different from anything Bowie did before, his “plastic soul” sounded anything but plastic and the influence of John Lennon still in his prime and Luther Vandross made this a very classy sounding album. Bowie’s voice seemed to adapt to any style.

Station to Station (1976) was another departure and another Bowie character the vampire-like Thin White Duke. Bowie was a heavy cocaine user during this period and it drives on the pulsating title track that opens the album. The opening minutes of that song are unforgettable as the train build up speed slowly with a droning guitar before the thin white Duke’s voice returns to bring this massive song home with an up tempo conclusion. Well, if it’s not the side-effects of the cocaine, I’m thinking that it must be love.

It took me a while to love the two 1977 albums Low and Heroes. By then Bowie was in Berlin and under the influence of ambient musician Brian Eno. Low was well named, the pain of Bowie’s then splintered personal life brought out in songs like Breaking Glass and Always Crashing in the Same Car. The instrumental side 2 was difficult listening but ultimately rewarding. Heroes followed a similar trajectory with side one distilling in lyrics Bowie’s drug-crazed agonies while an instrumental side two seemed to explore the same concepts in music.

Lodger (1979) came out in the same year I was seriously getting into Bowie. It was a bit more upbeat than the previous two and was minus the instrumental frenzies but it was still a dark record. Boys Keep Swinging got Bowie back in the British charts but there was not much singles joy in this platter. The title Lodger hinted Bowie was not really at home in this music but his travels around world music did give him a better feel for dance music he would exploit successful in the early 1980s.

That decade started with Scary Monsters and Super Creeps which was the first Bowie album I bought as soon as it came out. I was a bit disappointed. The album was commercial successful and the singles Ashes to Ashes and Fashion put him at the top of the charts. Yet somehow I was expecting a bit more from Bowie. It was another change of musical philosophy for sure, but it just seemed to fall short. Maybe I was just being precious because everyone liked Bowie at the time. Listening again to It’s No Game (Part 1) recently, it is a classic track with Michi Hirota singing the song in Japanese and Bowie spitting out the translation in English as if, as Carr & Murray said he was “tearing out his intestines”.

My love affair with Bowie ended in 1983 with Let’s Dance. Sooner or later Bowie would have to release a disco record and this was it, and a great success. But by 1983 I was a know-all 18 and starting to get into more obscure music. Listening to Wire, the Virgin Prunes and the young Matt Johnson (later The The). I was unimpressed by Bowie’s clean dance sounds on this album. The title track was playing in every discotheque in the world that summer and I loathed it like I loathed Thriller which came out around the same time. This music was beneath me and I didn’t buy another Bowie record for 20 years.

Around 2005, there was a time when all his back collection of CDs was selling at $10 a pop in Brisbane record stores. In a fit of nostalgia I bought all those albums from 1970 to 1983. I fell in love with his early music again. Too much time had passed under the bridge for me to care about more recent Bowie offerings. I bought Heathen (2002) but because it had no 1970s or 1980s memories to weave on to, it never impinged on my conscience and I’ve hardly ever played it. But for those 13 years or so, Bowie’s voice, dexterity and mastery of various genres made him a musical genius of the highest order. Happy 65th birthday, David.