Friday, October 30, 2009

Things were much better then: Soft Drinks

This afternoon was a lovely spring day that has one thinking of days past and glorious times spent as a youth playing cricket in the backyard, running through a sprinkler as no one you knew owned a pool, or joining up with your mates with some wooden guns to go off and play war.

What it also had me thinking of was the sheer joy of soft drink back then. Nowadays the myriads of soft drinks filling the aisles of Woolies and Coles are such that you can pretty much drink whatever flavour you’re after – and judging by the sales of Coke etc, everyone is drinking them. I must admit I drink a lot of soft drink – mostly the 99c Pine Crush and Pub Squash stuff. Admittedly as well I don’t drink a lot of alcohol. Maybe it’s because of the young kids, ‘but I find when I get home from work I’m not all that eager to crack open a beer and while we’ll very occasionally have a glass of wine for dinner (most likely if I have been cooking with the wine) mostly my drinking consists of coffee and soft drink (though only water at work).

This as you might be not too shocked to discover has not been the greatest decision on the part of my teeth, and it has ensured my dentist this year will be able to holiday on Hayman Island at my expense….

But while I do drink a lot of the bubbly sugar liquid, it doesn’t hold the sense of joy that it did when I was young. Most likely because back then access to the soft drink came first through my Mum or Dad, and it was not a certain thing that access would be granted.

But what I think mostly brought the sense of joy was the actual soft drinks themselves.

For you see, where I grew up, in country South Australia, we drank a brand of soft drink made locally, and by locally I don’t mean Woodies Lemonade, which is a South Australian product I have never liked, no I mean Chandler’s soft drinks, owned and distilled in the main street of Mannum by John Chandler.

Now Johnnie Chandler was an enterprising sort of chap, and he operated in a time more forgiving of things… things like bottling the soft drink in recycled beer bottles, or letting some young kids spend the day working for him despite the fact it was a school day. Now sure were he to be doing it today occupational health and safety would no doubt have shut him down and A Current Affair would probably be doing an expose on his business, but I say pah! He made great soft drink, and I won’t hear a bad word said.

I remember distinctly my class going down the main street on an excursion to see the drink being bottled. He had the bottles all going around on conveyer belts, getting washed, filled, capped all automatically. It looked very impressive to my young eyes.

He had the most amazing flavours – Ruby Cola, which tasted like well like ruby cola would be expected to taste, and it had a lovely ruby colour as well (I guess is was the Shiraz of his output); Fruit Cola, which was a more normal cola, but had a certain… well a certain fruitiness to it; Snowee Cola, which was my favourite as it had a lovely cola taste, but it looked like beer (which given it came out of an old beer bottle, who’s to say…). He also did a Sarsaparilla, a Lemonade and (I think) a Raspberry flavoured one – which I only recall because my Dad for some reason called it “Red Raaz” (which incidentally is what he still does call any raspberry soft drink).

Chandler’s operation closed in the early 80s due to his age, and most likely inquiries from the Health department, and when his doors shut, so too did a part of my youth, for the flavours were never carried on. I know there is some soft drink called “Snow Top”, but it’s not Snowee Cola, and nowhere have I come across anything to match the magical Ruby or Fruit Colas.

The thing is Chandler’s soft drinks weren’t the only drinks of my youth to be gone. Two others were there, that no longer are found on the shelves. I speak of Leeds Lemonade and Mello Yellow. 

Now I loved Leeds. It was my favourite lemonade, and I don’t care what anyone says Sprite is and has never been up to it (and I will continue to say this even if you tell me that Sprite is just Leeds, renamed). Perhaps I had a soft spot for it because in Year 6 I had a Leeds Yo-Yo. It was a great Yo-Yo – nice and thick and in the hands of a skilled artisan of the Yo-Yo art, one was able to do all the tricks – especially the elusive rock the cradle.

I was not skilled in the arts of the Yo-Yo, if for no other reason than the first day I took my Leeds Yo-Yo to school it got flogged from my bag at lunch time. My Dad, when I told him of the crime, took it as a sign that he should not buy me another one, and thus my opportunity at wealth and fame through the Yo-Yo was lost.

Alas, but at least through the wonders of Youtube we can relive the glories of Leeds Lemonade through this wonderfully dated advert from 1979:

Mello Yellow came a bit later, and it only really has an imprint in my mind due to its advert. It was the ad that tried to persuade you that Mello Yellow could be drunk all in one go. This of course was a virtual dare to a 10 year old kid such as myself, and I would not be dissuaded even if actually drinking the whole bottle in one go actually made you feel like you needed to throw the whole lot back up, I was determined to be able to do it – and no amount of laughing while my sister sang the jingle as I drank and thus causing me to laugh and bring the Mello Yellow up through my nose was going to stop me.

Alas it too died out, no doubt replaced by “Lift”, and it is only now looking back at the advert do I think. Oh. My. God. Perhaps there has been an ad more filled with sexual innuendo. But I doubt it. (see I told you soft drink was better back then)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

On the QT: Economic free zone edition

A funny thing happened today. All year the Liberal Party has been screaming about the Government's stimulus package putting pressure on inflation and thus causing interest rates to go up. Today the latest inflation figures came out. They showed that inflation had increased by 1.0% in the last quarter, for a 1.3% annual increase; figures which were slightly higher than expected, and which made it absolutely certain that the Reserve Bank will raise the cash rate from 3.25% to 3.5% on Melbourne Cup Day.

So how many questions do you think the opposition asked the Government about the reckless spending of the stimulus plan? How many questions do you think they asked about the economy? The answer is none. Out of the eight questions they asked seven were on asylum seekers, and one (a almost Dorothy Dixer from Fran Bailey) on the bushfire rebuilding efforts.

So why didn’t the opposition ask about inflation and interest rates? Because, while inflation went up, the figures Graph: Contribution to quarterly change, September Quarter 2009—September Quarter 2009show that next to bugger all of the rise was due to the stimulus. As the Bureau of Statistics put it: 

  • The most significant price rises this quarter were for electricity (+11.4%), automotive fuel (+4.0%), water and sewerage (+14.1%), deposit and loan facilities (+3.0%) and house purchase (+1.1%).

    Or as Bernard Keane in today’s Crikey email put it:

    Forget all the barking from the interest rate hounds in the finance commintariat about "rate rise looms, perhaps half a per cent" and focus on the fact that nearly all the 1% rise in the cost of living for the September quarter can be blamed on those higher utility charges, especially for electricity.

    You see the stimulus package does not affect electricity prices, petrol, sewerage or loans. Which meant that everything Turnbull and Hockey have been saying this year about the stimulus causing inflation to rise, and thus leading to higher interest rates was completely discredited by the data; because were what they said true, we would see this reflected in the figures. They aren’t so it’s not.

    And so Turnbull and co focussed on asylum seekers. But it was a poor showing. Their questions lacked bite; and Rudd for the first time this session seemed to find the right tone on the issue. He has put away the “tough but humane”  rhetoric (at least to an extent), and adopting a more measured line (no doubt seeing how well such a tone by Stephen Smith has gone down). Rudd is perhaps working out that what the public wants to see on this issue is a leader who is calm , in control, one who acknowledges it is a complex problem, and thus one not well served by hysteria. It is a good tactic and he should keep at it (because it is also the right tactic as well).

    The opposition helped Rudd no end with some utterly stupid questions. Susan Ley thought she had Rudd skewered when she asked about the fact that the Oceanic Viking had more people on board than it should have because it had picked up the 78 asylum seekers. Rudd fairly well laid into her, wondering if Opposition was suggesting they should have let the asylum seekers boat sink because there wasn’t enough room on the Oceanic Viking.

    Turnbull asked Rudd if he had considered the push factors of the end of the Sri Lankan civil war and the Iraq War when he changed the Immigration Act last October. This was rather bizarre given that, firstly the opposition agreed with the changes at the time, and secondly, the Sri Lankan Civil War only ended in May this year; so I don’t think Rudd was taking into account something that hadn’t happened. And given the changes to Australian law don’t affect the push factors the question had one or five holes in logic.

    And so there is one day to go before they all get a rest. The Liberals will hope for a better day tomorrow to get some oomph into the weekend and the Newspoll polling that will happen. Next Tuesday the poll will come out, and given the last Newspoll was 59-41, there will obviously be a drop in the numbers for the ALP, but unless the drop is considerable, it will be difficult not to argue that the last two weeks banging on about asylum seekers has been a complete waste of everyone’s time.

  • Tuesday, October 27, 2009

    On the QT: Can I get a Stereotype Reinforced Edition

    Having had meeting most of the afternoon I wasn’t able to watch any Question Time today, and when I got home I found that despite having taped Question Time, someone had accidentally hit the mute button on my Foxtel remote, meaning I was treated to Rudd, Turnbull et al opening their mouths and saying nothing.

    Now for some that would be the best way to view Question Time, but I have to say I found the experience rather lacking in excitement. Fortunately I was able to get a recap off the many journalists and assorted political tragics who follow Question Time on twitter. Their commentary was, I am sure, much more lively than was the reality.

    No doubt had I watched I would have seen the Libs go on and on about asylum seekers, without ever suggesting they themselves have a policy; and I would have heard the ALP talk all about climate change and the ETS because they are sick of talking about asylum seekers.

    Not much missed then I guess.

    An interesting political issue cropped up this morning, when a leaked email from Lib Senator, Michael Ronaldson's, advisor Peter Phelps (no, not the brother of Kerryn Phelps) which suggested that:

    “You don't get news stories by trying to change perceptions, you get them by reinforcing stereotypes.

    Stories worth pursuing should cover: "Fat cat public servants not caring about taxpayers, pollies with snouts in the trough, special interest groups getting undeserved handouts from tax taken from hard-working Aussies, a favoured pro-Labor contractor who seems to be getting all the work for a particular job etc.

    While policy discussions are nice, the simple fact is that in opposition, the majority of our successful news stories are going to be ones which are a little quirky and which draw the attention of journos."

    Essentially it meant dig for dirt, and forget policy. As you would expect the Government had a field day with it in parliament. Albanese got asked a Dorothy Dixer on the importance of email communications in business – in which he said “I shudder when I hear the words ‘Malcolm’, ‘Turnbull’ and ‘email’ in the same sentence” and generally had great fun at the Liberal's expense.

    The fact is Phelps’s advise is hardly earth shattering, but that doesn’t mean you want it to be shown, because (as he points out so correctly) successful news stories are ones “which draw the attention of journos” and which “reinforce stereotypes”. This email did both.

    The accompanying article by Matthew Franklin however left a little to be desired. It contained the following line:

    Since taking the opposition leadership more than a year ago, Mr Turnbull has built his push for power on his economic policy credentials and has avoided personal attacks…. Despite Mr Turnbull's aspiration to provide policy-based leadership, the email, written to media advisers on September 8, advocated a low-road approach

    What the hell??? Where was Franklin during the Godwin Grech affair? I challenge Franklin to come up with one policy that Turnbull has put forward. All I can think of is his small business tax loss right off thing…. and that was hardly a major policy – more a rinky-dink accountancy idea.

    Turnbull has been the complete opposite of the policy wonk leader. Ask yourself what will Turnbull do if PM? How will he change your life – what will he do on health, education, immigration, infrastructure, social security, housing, the environment? Heck anything?! If you can do so without first having a squiz at the Liberal Party website, then you’re a better political watcher than I.

    The asylum seeker “issue” is a case in point. The Liberals say Rudd has stuffed up, but they have zero suggestions of what should be done other than to hold an independent inquiry. What a crock; I have no problems with them playing the stereotypical line, but please, at least offer an alternative.

    The asylum seeker issue is also a fine example of the accuracy of Phelps’s email – stereotypes. The media loves them. In fact the asylum seeker issue is manna from heaven for lazy newspaper editors, radio talk back hosts and commercial TV “current affairs” editors. You don’t have to have watched any episodes of Frontline to know how lazy media will approach the topic. Facts? pah! Give me a half truth, a cherry picked piece of data and let’s run with it all week long. (tis a pity there aren’t more articles on the issue like this from Sky news)

    It’s why I hate the issue – the opposition acts like it matters, the Government reacts like it matters, and the media reports it like it matters. Here’s a question – there has been this “flood” of asylum seekers since April. Tell me in one sentence how your life has been changed by it. …

    Need more time to think?

    Guess what – your life hasn’t been changed at all by it; and here’s another “guess what” – people don’t change their votes on things that don’t actually affect their lives. All such things will do is reinforce perceptions already held, and firm their votes. The Liberal Party don’t want the polls to firm, they need them to change.

    But Phelps’s advice has been taken up quite well by others on the Liberal front bench. Scott Morrison has put forward some stereotypical action on interest rates. It should first be noted that last Thursday Morrison was among those on the Liberal Party front bench who thought it so hilarious that the national police force of Canada are still called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – “Mounties!” they cackled. Yes it always does Australia good for the world to see its politicians laughing at the names of foreign law enforcement agencies…). Today in The Australian, Morrison said:

    … government spending would drive up interest rates faster than those in other nations and that if the pace continued it would put increasing pressure on home owners. Those particularly affected would be people who bought homes with small deposits in the months leading up to last year's global financial crisis. "These are the ones going through the delinquencies and arrears process now," Mr Morrison said yesterday. "They are the ones who are really going to get squeezed."

    The headline “Stimulus to hit Battlers” could have been a Liberal Party press release, and it played to the standard “let’s not think about facts” line often seen in the media with interest rates. The perception is a rise in interest rates is bad, and good luck finding anyone noting that if interest rates had gone down from the 3% cash rate that would have meant the economy was in serious, serious trouble, and that them going up meant things were looking like getting better (which you would think is a good thing). Morrison continued with this pearl of wisdom:

    Mr Morrison said the government's refusal to wind back its spending on infrastructure, particularly in schools, was putting pressure on inflation and risked leading to increasing interest rates at a time battlers could least afford it.

    Which begs the question, if the economy is cruising along nicely and doesn’t need the stimulus, why then is this a time “battlers could least afford it”? And why can’t battlers “least afford interest rates” that are a good 1.5%-2% below the 30 year average rate? Now look, I am no fan of high interest rates, and they can cause people to lose their homes, but does the Liberal Party seriously think the Government should be changing macroeconomic policy on the basis of people who took out a home loan when the cash rate was 3%, but who won’t be able to afford repayments if the rate goes to 5%?

    Please. And here I thought the Liberal Party was the party of personal responsibility.

    The final little interesting bit of news from the Liberal Party today came from the party room meeting it had with party director Brian Loughnane. It is instructive to view the comments reported to the media through the lens of Phelps’s email:

    Mr Loughnane was asked by MPs what the community view was on an emissions trading scheme and he said it was clear voters want action on climate change but when it came to an emissions trading scheme the view became murkier because they weren’t exactly sure what it was. However, Mr Loughnane refused to detail what the Coalition’s polling said on the issue when he was directly asked by leading climate change sceptic Cory Bernardi.

    Why not detail the polling? Well because then it would be revealed in the media, and one does not reveal polling that suggests things counter to the message one is trying to get across. So you can take it as read the polling suggests the public want the Libs to pass the ETS.

    A final bit from the meeting was this:

    The Liberal strategist also suggested that voters believed Mr Rudd made “hasty” decisions and that a key message for voters should be the “risk” of second term Labor government.

    To which I would suggest the ALP are tonight popping champagne bottles, because it looks like the Liberal Party are still trying to win the 2007 election.

    “The risk of the second term”??? Here’s a tip Brian - people are not going to be worried about the risks of Rudd being PM – he already is the PM!! If after 2 years of being PM the public still give him record level satisfaction rating, I don’t think there is a perception out there of him being “risky”.

    But here’s another tip Brian – there is a leader who the voters think made a “hasty” decision this year. He leads the Liberal Party.

    And trying to tag Rudd with that label isn’t going to change that perception.

    Guess it’s time to for the Libs to find another stereotype to push, or failing that try something really radical – come up with a policy. I won’t hold my breath.

    Sunday, October 25, 2009

    Stupidity and the Asylum Seeker Debate

    I’ve been struggling to write about politics for the last week. It’s all been so overwhelmingly stupid and pointless. The issue of asylum seekers coming by boat is so utterly over-rated by the media and the politicians of this country that I wonder if the cup of stupid political comment runneth over ever greater on this topic than any other.

    We have journalists of pretty high standing like Paul Kelly suggesting it “defies common sense” to argue that the changes in the immigration laws haven’t caused the increase in asylum seekers. And yet he offers no proof of this – just his belief. He doesn’t acknowledge what even The Sunday Telegraph knows to be fact:

    EVERY day, at least 13 asylum-seekers enter Australia through airports, representing 30 times the number of boat people that are supposedly "flooding" across our maritime borders.

    A total of 4768 "plane people" - more than 96 per cent of applicants for refugee status - arrived by aircraft in 2008 on legitimate tourist, business and other visas compared with 161 who arrived by boat during the same period. … And plane people are much less likely than boat people to be genuine refugees, with only about 40-60 per cent granted protection visas, compared with 85-90 per cent of boat people who are found to be genuine refugees.

    Exact plane-people figures for 2009 are not yet available, but an
    Immigration Department spokesman said the figure was likely to have increased at a similar rate to that of boat arrivals, which grew from 161 to 1799 since last year, in response to increased pressures within the region, including the end of civil war in Sri Lanka, which has seen many ethnic Tamils fleeing persecution.

    When The Sunday Telegraph is sprouting more sense than the Editor-at-large of The Australian, you know things are a bit upside down.

    But such a state is par for the course with this issue. Kevin Rudd goes over the top with his protestations of “making no apologies for being tough on people smugglers” (or whatever topic any journalist is asking him about), and Malcolm Turnbull goes over the top when he accuses Rudd of being soft of asylum seekers and causing the flood on boat people.

    It’s all confected bullshit.

    The ALP’s policy is much the same as the Liberal Party’s policy (if they had one). Turnbull doesn’t want the “Pacific solution” back. And yet both sides feel some pathetic need to prove to the other (and I guess the voters) that they care more about stopping boat people than the other.


    Sure, when polled on the whether or not they are concerned about illegal immigrants people may say “yes”. But how many people do you know would change their vote over the issue?

    I’m going to make a big guess at zero.

    If you favour a stronger border protection than currently exists I’m pretty sure you’re already a Liberal voter. If you want a softer line taken (and you believe Rudd is being too Howard like), I’m betting you already vote the ALP or Greens, and will do so at the next election.

    So, what’s the rumpus?

    The real issue of the moment is the Emissions Trading Scheme – that is one that will actually affect voters’ lives. And yet here again the war is phoney. It looks pretty likely the ALP will accept a couple of the Libs’ amendments, and after some hairy-chested talk in the Liberal Party-room, the Libs will vote for it out of fear of triggering a double dissolution. Because, while Rudd going to an early election would put the Senate out of whack and mean another election in 2012, on current polling the Liberal Party would get absolutely slaughtered. Absolutely. Completely. Totally.

    On current polling the ALP would get about a 5% swing  which would see it winning around 109 seats and would leave the Libs and Nationals with 38 seats… But get this, all  the ALP needs is a 1.5% swing (i.e a final result of about 54.2% of the vote) for it to win 99 seats. That would leave the LNP with 48 seats. Yep, the ALP would have a 51 seat majority. That my friends is an embarrassingly large victory.

    So forget any Liberal MP or Senator saying they don’t fear a double dissolution; they’re petrified.

    Who isn’t? Well that would be Julie Bishop. Here she was on Insiders a couple week’s back:

    JULIE BISHOP: Well I'm certainly not afraid of an election. I'm not afraid to face Mr Rudd at any time.

    The amount of roses that could be fertilised with the manure contained in that one sentence is almost incalculable.  But then it is Julie Bishop, so we need to take into account that she might not understand what she is saying.

    Bishop at least has stayed true to form on the asylum issue. On Friday, while being interviewed by Fran Kelly, she compared Wilson Tuckey’s suggestion that it was short odds that terrorists would be among the asylum seekers with those made by ALP back bencher Michael Danby in a speech in June. Now first off, Tuckey is a fool, and not whom many would think is particularly level headed on this issue, and Danby was the MP who told off Kevin Rudd for calling asylum seekers “illegal immigrants”. Most people would ponder that point before trying to draw the long bow of comparison. Not so Bishop. Here’s what she said:

    JULIE BISHOP: And he [Danby] said that if people seek to evade our border protection system then we run the security risk of having potential terrorists in Australia. They were the words of a Labor backbencher...

    FRAN KELLY: Just on that, Michael Danby says he's taken in the wrong context there. He said he wasn't talking about border protection regulation. He was talking about an immigration change to the sort of disclosure of information gathered from asylum seekers.

    JULIE BISHOP: Oh Fran, I've read the speech. He used the phrase border protection, asylum seekers, potential terrorists.
    Now Wilson Tuckey might not have been as articulate but he was expressing the same view.

    OK Julie, let’s read the speech as well. In June, Danby, was debating the MIGRATION AMENDMENT (PROTECTION OF IDENTIFYING INFORMATION) BILL 2009, which was a Bill (as Danby described it) designed to create a system that better serves the needs of Australia’s society and Australia’s economy while treating migrants and those who wish to come to this country with fairness and dignity.

    Here’s what the Bill actually proposed to do (it’s a bit boring and legal, but it is important to get the context right):

    The problem that has arisen is that there is a technical incompatibility between the 2004 act and some other pieces of legislation, which means that it is not as clear as it should be that all personal information collected from people dealing with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship is fully protected regardless of who actually collects the data or whether it is collected inside or outside Australia. In order to redress this problem, to ensure that the rights and privacy of such people are protected under the act and to assure our international partners that the data they provide us will be given this protection, it is necessary to make sure that all personal information collected by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship for these purposes is covered by the same statutory regime—namely, part 4A of the act. This bill will bring the definition of identifying information in the act into line with the original policy intention of 2004 that all personal data obtained by, or on behalf of, the department is protected by part 4A of the act.

    So this Bill was not about boat people and terrorists, it was about a law (which the Howard Govt brought in) that had a loophole in it regarding the protection of personal data collected by the Department of Immigration.

    OK, let’s see Danby’s reference to “border protection, asylum seekers and potential terrorists”:

    Any loophole in our law can be exploited by criminal elements who may want to evade or subvert our border protection system. They include identity thieves, people smugglers, potential terrorists, drug runners and those who traffic in illegal sex workers. Any such loopholes must be closed as quickly as possible.

    And here I want to give some context to these measures. This is not seen by the current government as some hysterical problem that we have to react to as a result of vast numbers of boat people. To hear the opposition talk over the last few months, one would have thought not that 350 people had arrived by boat to be dealt with by Australian immigration authorities but that there had been 350 boats full of people who were unauthorised arrivals. We have measured and considered immigration policy. This government is not hysterical, as the previous government was, about unauthorised arrivals, and the current minister has obviously taken a measured and intelligent way of responding to the few boats that have arrived.

    So he is specifically not referring to boat people, he actually made the point in his speech that he is not doing so! Did Bishop read the sentence after he mentioned “potential terrorists”? I doubt it, but then you would at least hope her staff did. Perhaps they are as equally incompetent as she?

    Well that is harsh, I doubt anyone could be “equally” incompetent.

    Bishop after committing this stupidity to air, was then asked by Fran Kelly about comments made by Liberal Senator David Johnston, who suggested asylum seekers could spread diseases. Instead of dismissing his remarks, she decided to support them, despite – as Fran Kelly pointed out repeatedly –  the health and security checks that Johnston had said needed to be in place, already are in place:

    FRAN KELLY: … there are security check and health checks made on these people…

    JULIE BISHOP: He was merely stating the obvious, that that is what we do need. We need quarantine..

    FRAN KELLY: But we have quarantine and health checks. We have that.

    JULIE BISHOP: Well… to take the reverse of what David Johnston was saying are you suggesting that we don’t need those kind of health checks?
    [Let’s take the opposite??]
    FRAN KELLY: No no, I’m saying we’ve got them in place so why do we need to be worried about it?

    JULIE BISHOP: Well David was making the point that when people arrive unauthorised without identify papers with no way of knowing where they come from, and they land on Christmas Island and there’s a lot of traffic between Christmas Island and Australia or on Ashmore Reef then it’s vital that we have vigorous security and health checks. Now, I think the Australian population would think that that is a very sensible course to take.

    FRAN KELLY: But it is the course that is taken already isn’t it?

    JULIE BISHOP: Well the point we’ve been making…
    [This should be good – Bishop trying to make a point…]
    FRAN KELLY: But that’s true isn’t it?

    JULIE BISHOP: Well these health checks and security check are absolutely vital…
    [Great point Julie, health and security checks that are in place, and are not about to be changed are vital. Stunning insight.]
    FRAN KELLY: Yes but they do take place now, that’s all I’m asking you.

    JULIE BISHOP: And there’s nothing wrong with the Coalition reminding the Government that it must maintain the most vigorous security and health checks because the boats are arriving now almost on a daily basis …

    Well thanks for the reminder Julie, where would the Government be with out you?

    And thanks as well for reminding us all that while the asylum seeker issue may highlight the worst in Australian politics, it also highlights the most stupid aspects as well.

    Friday, October 23, 2009

    A Song a Year: 1994, American Life in the Summertime

    Ah 1994. An interesting year for me. It was my first year post university, and thus my first year of being unemployed.

    I had finished an Honours degree in Economics the year before (just finished paying that HECS debt off this year!), and of course the job offers just flew my way. Alas I got down to the last two a couple times (one, a dream job as a research assistant at Flinders Uni they gave to someone else because they said they thought I’d get bored) but I seemed destined to be caught in that wonderful Generation X nexus of too qualified to do normal jobs (like work in a bank), but not qualified enough to do what I was qualified to do (work in an investment bank).

    I remember going for one job interview as a kitchen hand at some restaurant on The Parade in Adelaide, and the guy looked at my CV and said, so do you really want this job? I had to admit I hadn’t grown up wanting to be a kitchen hand.

    So it was a year of buggering around, drinking coffee, writing out job applications, doing some meaningless work (I worked as a courier for a couple months). All in all it was a lot like uni, except there wasn’t any study. The dumb thing was I could have been studying. I had deferred an Honours in Politics course so I could do the Economics course, and I promptly forgot about the deferment until I received a letter around Easter informing me the deferment had lapsed.

    This was one of those mistakes which probably altered my life, as had I, in some Sliding Doors style way remembered the deferment and done an Honours in Politics, I am sure things would have turned out rather different – mostly because I was much better at politics than economics (where I struggled to comprehend the mathematics of the statistics in the econometrics). It was no surprise that the only subject I scored Distinction in my Honours year was Political Economics, in the tutorials of which I fought a lone hand of the Keynesian against the money hungry Milton Friedman worshipping Monetrists. But some of them knew what they were talking about – one of my ex-colleagues is now director of investment at a pretty large private bank, and is no doubt earning a tad more than I.

    But I digress.

    Music that year was pretty 1990s:

    2. I SWEAR - ALL 4 ONE
    4. IT'S ALRIGHT - EAST 17
    13. GIVE IT UP - CUT 'N' MOVE
    15. SHOOP - SALT 'N' PEPA

    Lots of songs by bands that aren’t the best they did; lots of songs that you struggle to remember (“100% Pure Love”??), bands that you can’t recall (The Grid???), and great one hit wonders (“Mmm mmm mmm mmm”). It’s almost the 1990s music encapsulated.

    My song of the year didn’t make the top 50 of the year, in fact it peaked only at number 18, but it was a song that got a lot of play on my and my friends’ tape players. It was perhaps the greatest beer drinking song of the 1990s (heck it has the line “let’s go drink till the beer runs dry”). My friends – some still at uni, other just finished, were still young and carefree enough to sit around on Wellington Square in Adelaide, play a bit of touch footy, drink Coopers Pale Ale, and just generally enjoy fun Saturday afternoons.

    We didn't do it a lot, and I’m not sure if this song was playing when we did it, but when I hear this song now, it sure as hell feels like that was the case. It is also a great driving song. I have it on a few mix CDs, and went it comes on, it’s time to crank the volume up, pretend I’m driving some convertible, and feel young. I think its only match for a great driving and summer and drinking song is the classic 80s hits, “Boys of Summer”.

    The best music is music which stays with you as you age – music that doesn’t care if you are now closer to 40 than 20. This song is one of those. I don’t feel stupid singing along to it in the car or shower in a way that I would feel stupid should I ever catch myself singing say Silverchair’s “Tomorrow”. It was an ok song, but very much targeted at kids who weren’t quite old enough to be Nirvana fans; and when compared with Silverchair’s more recent outputs, it comes across as the juvenilia that it was.

    “American Life in the Summertime” thus does the two things a good song must do – it transports you back to when you first heard it, but remains relevant even without those memories.

    After this year I left Adelaide, and moved to Cairns (as you do), so this was in many ways the end of a chapter year in my life.

    Music after this time would begin to have less resonance, and I lost access to decent radio stations, and thus depended more on my own CD collection.

    So this song is not just summer and drinking and relaxing and laughing. It is also perhaps the last song of my uni years (which of course is intractably linked with drinking and relaxing and laughing).

    The official video isn’t available on youtube, but I found this rather clever amateur one done by someone using the Sims 2 game to link with the song; it fits quite well:

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009

    On the QT: Is there a rabble in the house? edition

    This morning's Australian newspaper contained the rather startling news that despite a week spent banging on about asylum seekers, the Liberal-National Party vote had gone backwards. The Newspoll revealed that the two party preferred score was ALP 59- LNP 41 (compared to 58-42 last time). All in all it meant no real change as a one percentage movement is within the margin of error, but that was small consolation for Turnbull and the rest of the coalition. The most astonishing aspect was how little news such a wipe-out result got in the media.

    According to Antony Green’s election calculator, such a poll would result in the ALP winning 116 seats to the LNP’s 31. Yep 116-31. Now that’s not going to happen, but in past years, just the suggestion of such a thing would be massive news, and would certainly mean the end of the opposition leader’s tenure. So horrible is the Liberal Party’s standing at the moment, that the poll didn’t even rate the question of Turnbull’s leadership being raised by the media.

    We are in a very strange place, politically. When 59-41 doesn’t raise an eyebrow you have to start wondering if the ALP can actually win by a record margin. Howard in 1996 got 53.63% – which would mean the Libs get about 47%, something they have only achieved once in a Newspoll since the start of 2008). In other words for the ALP to win by a margin only as big as Howard did in 1996, would mean their polling to fall to the worst point in two years. That is not good, if you are a Liberal Party MP.

    On the personal standings, Kevin Rudd’s satisfaction rating went down by 4% to 63% (about where it was in August-September), and his dissatisfaction rating went up 4% for a net satisfaction of 35 (compared with 43 last time). A pretty big drop it must be said. Turnbull however would hardly have found himself smiling into his Weet-bix, because his satisfaction rating also fell by 1% to 32%, and his dissatisfaction rating went up by 6% to 54% – for a net satisfaction rating of minus 22 (compared with minus 15 last time).

    Clearly the voters didn’t think much of how either leader handled the asylum issue; and the drop in the Liberal Party’s primary vote from 32% to 30% suggests there is absolutely no desire on the part of the electorate to go back to a John Howard style of things.

    Dennis Shanahan put it succinctly:

    … today's Newspoll figures are all bad for Turnbull

    Julie Bishop, speaking to the Liberal Party room prior to Question Time told the MPs “they are behaving like a "rabble" and are to blame for the coalition's poor performance in opinion polls”.

    Clearly what they needed was to unite and go into the Parliament and put on a strong display.

    Unfortunately for the Liberal Party, this involved letting Julie Bishop ask a question.

    As Kevin Rudd was in Indonesia, Julia Gillard was Acting PM, and Bishop asked her about comments made by the head of the AWU, Paul Howes, about the asylum seekers. Howes had saidAustralia should roll out the red carpet and welcome the Sri Lankans with open arms”.  Bishop, cunning strategist that she is, wondered whether, given the AWU attended the ALP national conference, what role the AWU had in formulating the Government's asylum seekers policy.

    It was quite possibly the dumbest question she has ever asked. Gillard herself wondered whether it was more stupid than Bishop’s effort in September when she quoted Paul Keating from 1969. I think this was worse for a couple reasons.

    Firstly it was a question that didn’t even have a hint of penetration in it – all Gillard needed to do was laugh and say “no” (which she did). But once she had done that she was then able to move on and talk up the Government's asylum seeker policy to her heart’s content. It was at this point that Bishop outdid herself. She actually got up and raised a point of order saying that Gillard had answered the question and thus should sit down. The standard practice of the opposition when raising a point of order during the Government's answer to one of their questions is to complain the Minister is refusing to answer it. What Bishop did was essentially ask the Speaker to take pity on her and stop Gillard from hitting her over the head with her own idiocy. (He didn’t.)

    Sigh – no wonder they’re a rabble. If you were a backbencher in the Liberal Party and you were seeing that from your Deputy Leader would you be all that bothered with toeing the party line?

    Sharman Stone almost outdid Bishop by asking Gillard the exact same question Laurie Oakes had asked Julia on the Sunday program. Oakes had quoted a press release by a “shadow minister” headed “"Another boat on the way. Another policy failure." It was only after Gillard had responded did Oakes reveal it was a press release Gillard herself had put out in 2003, talking about the Howard policy.

    It was a good little set up by Oakes. Sharman Stone unfortunately thought asking it again would somehow trip up Julia. It didn’t. In fact Gillard would have seen this question coming from about 9:30am Sunday. So obvious, and so poorly constructed was it, that it stretched the definition of “question without notice” to a point almost too great to bear.

    The rest of QT was devoted to a bit of argy bargy about the Reserve Bank – which included Turnbull slipping into lawyer mode when he sought to “tender the Reserve Bank minutes” rather than “table them”, and a few shots at Peter Dutton, who at that point had yet to announce whether he was going to recontest his seat of Dickson after losing the reselection for the safe seat of McPherson. When Chris Bowen was laying into him about being “the member for to be advised” and a guy who “couldn’t organise a successful surrender of his own seat”, Dutton decided to intervene and noticing Bowen’s flashy suit, said he may be dressed like Paul Keating but “you are no Paul Keating”. Bowen quick as a flash pointed out that “Paul Keating never ran from a fight”.

    After Question Time Dutton held a press conference to announce that he would be recontesting Dickson. The voters there must be so pleased.

    Monday, October 19, 2009

    I can see Indonesia from my house

    Most of the time Australian political discourse is of a higher level than that which occurs in America. We have a couple odd nutters who see conspiracies in ever ALP decision, and some who think the world is flat when it comes to climate change; but by and large the debate is level headed – perhaps missing some logic with some issues, perhaps over egging the point on some others. We don’t have many nutjobs like Glenn Beck who see Communism in every Obama decision (though it must be said Andrew Bolt has taken to citing him as evidence), or Rush Limbaugh who hope Obama fails, even if it means the country fails. We may have some in the media who don’t like the stimulus package, but no one (or at least no one of any note) is hoping that Australia goes into a recession just to show that Rudd was wrong).

    And we don’t have too many fools like Sarah Palin who out and out lied about Obama’s health policy planning on bringing in “death panels” to decide if the elderly or kids with Down Syndrome should live or die.

    So usually we are pretty good here. Except one issue. Except when it comes to the issue of asylum seekers. Actually scratch that; except when it comes to asylum seekers coming by boat. We don’t give a damn about those who come by plane. For whatever reason politicians, the media, and many of the public don’t care if a Sri Lankan comes by plane, gets off in Sydney and says “I wish to apply for asylum”. But come by boat from the same country? Well hell, the fan is well and truly hit by the stuff that makes the garden grow.

    This happens on both sides of the political divide. Kevin Rudd (though I agree with his policies) has well and truly gone overboard with his rhetoric about being tough and people smugglers being the “vilest form of humanity”. So the ALP is not free of criticism on this issue. But geez, they are miles and miles ahead of the Liberal Party (and it must be said, many in the media). Here was opposition spokesperson on Immigration, Sharman Stone, yesterday on Insiders:

    SHARMAN STONE: No. There was a package of measures and these things do take time as you say. The package or so called Pacific Solution was introduced in late 1999 about the last month of legislation. It took about another 18 months for the pipeline to be plugged. And I think by 2002/03 there were zero boats.

    In the year before Prime Minister Rudd softened the policy in Australia we had about three boats and that was extraordinarily few compared to the 41 boats that we've seen since Labor softened policy in Australia after August last year. And we know about 81 interceptions on Australia's behalf by the Indonesians over that same time.

    So the flow is back on full stream and it is a deadly business. And that's why we're saying, look Prime Minister Rudd, you do something right now other than just call on Indonesia to do your heavy lifting.
    BARRIE CASSIDY: What would you do if you were? What would you do if you did have the hands on the levers?

    SHARMAN STONE: Well let me put it back one step. We wouldn't have the problem in the first position Barrie because we had zero boat problems effectively when we were in government. This Government has unravelled…
    That's what's happened and we think that that is a deadly business. This Government keeps on unravelling and thinking it's having no effect. Well, Prime Minister Rudd has got to agree, yes, we created the pull factors.
    You can't expect Malaysia and Indonesia to just plug the pipe. We have got to change the pull factors. He's not acknowledging that.

    For the Liberal Party it is all about “pull factors”. After Howard introduced the Pacific Solution – wallah! All was good – zero boats!. Of course she doesn’t mention that there were actually 1546 asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat in 2002, it’s just that under the Pacific  Solution these people weren’t counted as having arrived in Australia (you see the solution was to not only hide the people, but also hide the statistics!).

    Paul Kelly on Insiders wasn’t much better:

    PAUL KELLY: The policy is what counts Barrie and that's where Indonesia, I believe, is the absolute key.

    I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about the true nature of Rudd's policy over the last 18 months. And it essentially depends on two elements and there is a potential contradiction here.

    Rudd wants to stay tough on border protection. He never walked away from that pledge. On the other hand Rudd and Chris Evans have been determined to make the policy more humane. And so in that sense of course there is a contradiction.

    They've abolished the Pacific Solution, abolished the mandatory detention in terms of a long term arrangement. It's now a short term arrangement. And they've changed the visa arrangements as well.

    But the test is now. The test is when the boats come. What they've got to demonstrate is that their new policy is consistent with limiting and containing the boats. If it's not, then it doesn't work.

    So both Stone and Kelly think the key thing is the “pull factors” – the immigration laws. They seem to think that refugees in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka are surfing the net reading Australian media, and possibly Hansard, to pick up changes in legislation; and having actually done that, I guess Stone and Kelly think that they bizarrely also fail to read that if they are not actual refugees they will be sent back home….

    But anyway, I wonder if all these people in politics and the media have actually investigated how much of a factor is the “pull” of changing immigration laws, and how much of a factor is the “push” from international conflicts? Well thankfully Possum Comitatus over at Crikey has used data (you know, facts – things the media and politicians used to care about). He has compared boat arrivals in Australia under Howard (“tough” border laws), with those in New Zealand (“soft” border laws).

    Rather oddly for those who think the laws matter, there is an extremely strong correlation between the numbers of asylum applications in Australia and New Zealand. So the “pull” factor is obviously pretty weak – if it were strong, in years that Australia had few asylum seekers, New Zealand would get lots (or at the very least there would be no correlation between the two). But as you can see if NZ gets lots of asylum seekers, so do we, and vice versa.

    Possum then decided to have a look at just boat arrivals (not just the broad “asylum applications”) compared with total asylum applications to 38 developed countries. Essentially looking to see if we get more boat people when other countries are getting more asylum seekers. Obviously if the push factors were the main contributor, there would be a high correlation:

    So what do we see?

    What we see is a very strong correlation between numbers of asylum applications in the 28 developed countries and the number of people coming by boat to Australia.

    Or maybe it’s just coincidence? A 16 year coincidence, I guess…

    And for those wondering why these Sri Lankans come to Australia and not go to India, which is closer, well here are the figures for where Sri Lankans have applied for asylum in India since 2006:

    2006 – 73,700
    2007 – 99,600
    2008 – 102,300
    2009 – 120,000

    And how many have come to Australia?  Try 1,843 in 2008 – or 1.8% of what India has had. Hardly what you would suggest is evidence that our “soft” immigration laws are pulling refugees to this country.

    So let’s just shelve the bull that changes in our laws have any great affect on numbers of boat people.

    Want to stop boat people? Stop wars throughout Asia and the Middle East. Simple. Till then, institute policies that encourage and enable people to apply for asylum (to whichever country) in the proper manner, and should we get boat people, treat them with the dignity we would expect of people under Australian care.

    Sunday, October 18, 2009

    Flick of the Week: “Now what's all this crud about no movie tonight?”

    This week’s flick of the week takes us with Jack Lemmon from Some Like it Hot, back to his breakthrough (and Oscar winning) role as Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts.

    Mister Roberts was an adaptation of a play by the same name. Fonda had played the eponymous role of a lieutenant aboard a supply boat in World War II on Broadway and was desperate to play it on film. The director, John Ford, choose him above the protestations of the studio (who wanted box office draws William Holden or Marlon Brando). But I have to say he was wrong to do so. Fonda is absolutely fantastic in the role, but the is no getting away from the fact he is too old. At the age of 50 he can’t really come across as a disgruntled young officer, who has dropped out of medical school to join up and fight, and who is now desperate to be put on a battleship, rather than the supply ship he finds himself.

    That said, as much as I think he was badly cast, his performance is faultless, and is up there with the best of his career (and the age aspect could have been fixed with a few tweaks of the script).Annex%20-%20Cagney,%20James%20(Mister%20Roberts)_01

    The plot involves Mister Roberts battling with the captain of the ship, Morton, played by James Cagney in his last great role. Mister Roberts keeps trying to get transferred, Morton continually denies his requests, knowing that Roberts is the best member of his crew, and is crucial to his own chances of being promoted. Morton is an ex-merchant marine, and also begrudges the fact that Roberts is a “college boy”, who has supposedly had it easy while he has had to work hard his whole life, often serving the rich. Thus he now sees this as his opportunity to have some class war payback.

    The other two officers on the ship are William Powell, in his last role, as the ship’s Doctor, and Lemmon and Ensign Pulver, the officer in charge of laundry and morale.

    Famously John Ford, fought with Fonda and Cagney (almost literally in the case of Cagney), and he suffered a gallstone attack half way through and was replaced by Mervyn Le Roy, though there is no way to work out who directed which scenes (as Jack Lemmon notes in the clip below).

    It is a hard film to quantify – part drama, part comedy. In some respects it is a cousin of Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 which came out a couple year's earlier – both film depict war as lacking in glamour and glory – and something that for many of those involved, whether in a POW camp in Stalag 17 or on a supply ship here, can actually be rather boring. mrroberts

    I first saw this film probably around 20-25 years ago (I think it was on one of those Bill Collins movie of the weeks that was on Channel 10 back in the 1980s) and have always had a soft spot for it. It’s beautifully acted, and the script, which while somewhat dated, fits with the time and conveys perfectly the sense of frustration and boredom felt by the men. In a number of scenes Cagney and Fonda go head to head – which is a film buffs delight really – seeing these two greats at work. And both create memorable characters. The film though is stolen by Lemmon. He is the comic element, but also the key role of the film. Without him the film would be a rather maudlin couple of hours of Fonda whining to Powell, interrupted by occasional outburst with Cagney. Lemmon gives the film a zest that make the dramatic points ever more dramatic, and gives Fonda and Powell a sense of place in the film. The scene of Lemmon, Powell and Fonda making scotch is perhaps my favourite in the film.

    A key aspect of the film is that of class relationships. Without getting too Marxist about it all, the conflict between rich boy Fonda and working class Cagney, is balanced by the absolute devotion the rest of the working class crew have for Mister Roberts. They are like obedient students to his teachers. Their faith in him is so childlike that they are stunned when he appears to turn on them. When they discover their mistake, their reaction is like a child who knows he has done wrong, and they decide to do all they can to make it up to him. On a level the film seems to argue that society needs these benevolent “upper class” types like Roberts who can assist the poor unthinking lower classes to do the right thing, and that the system only breaks down when people, like the Captain, are placed at positions above their station.

    That may be reading more into it than there is, and it is more a case of workers always liking a manager who treats them with respect, especially if the manager’s boss is a power hungry bastard.

    Either way, it is a film I enjoy – generally with a bit of a tear. Given that it’s always in the bargain bin if anywhere in a DVD store, it’s well worth picking up.

    Below is an interview with Jack Lemmon about the making of the film, plus a couple scenes.

    Previous Flicks of the Week:

    Some Like it Hot – Billy Wilder
    Witness for the Prosecution – Marlene Dietrich
    Touch of Evil – Orson Welles
    The Third Man – Trevor Howard
    Brief Encounter - David Lean
    Lawrence of Arabia – Claude Reins
    Casablanca – Humphrey Bogart
    The Big Sleep – Howard Hawks
    His Girl Friday – Cary Grant
    Charade – John Williams
    Schindler’s List – Liam Neeson
    Love Actually – Emma Thompson
    Sense and Sensibility – Ang Lee
    Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Michelle Yeoh
    Tomorrow Never Dies – Pierce Brosnan
    The Thomas Crown Affair – Renee Russo
    In the Line of Fire – Clint Eastwood
    Where Eagles Dare – Richard Burton
    Zulu – Stanley Baker
    The Guns of Navarone – Peter Yates
    Breaking Away – Dennis Quaid
    The Right Stuff – Ed Harris
    The Rock – Sean Connery
    The Longest Day – Richard Beymer
    West Side Story – Ernest Lehmann
    North By Northwest - The first one.

    Thursday, October 15, 2009

    The only issue the Libs agree on

    Every so very rarely I think that Malcolm Turnbull might have been a decent Prime Minster if things had gone his way. Then he opens his mouth.

    Today he has been doing his level best to sound like John Howard and Phillip Ruddock all rolled into one. He thinks the asylum seekers is a winning issue so he’s running with it. I have no doubt that he doesn’t believe a word of what he says (and you wonder how it is playing in his seat of Wentworth), but this is one issue he knows where the Liberal bread is buttered, and so he is falling into line – note he is falling into line, not the party doing what he as leader would want.

    Today he came out with this (he was speaking on Allan Jones’s radio show – nothing like a friendly audience to prattle shite):

    ''(Mr Rudd) has unpicked a very carefully constructed fabric of policy that has enabled us to have protective borders and little or no illegal arrivals. We are now facing what looks like being the beginning of a flood. Almost 2,000 illegal arrivals under Mr Rudd's policy change meant the Christmas Island detention centre was full.

    "He's created the impression we're a soft target and the people smugglers, as is abundantly evident, are using that as a marketing tool and we've had 2,000 arrivals, just under, since he's started softening the policies, and there's ... a lot more to come.”

    later in the day he followed up with:

    "It's all very well talking tough and describing people smugglers as vermin, we all agree that they are very bad criminals, but what's he going to do about it? But the answer is, so far, nothing."

    So Australia’s “soft laws” are being used a marketing tool are they? Let’s see from an interview with the Sri Lankan asylum seekers who were on the boat turned back by the Indonesian navy on Tuesday if this is true:

    GEOFF THOMPSON: But Australia was not the first and certain choice for these asylum seekers, simply the cheapest and easiest place to get to…

    Clearly, what Rudd needs to do is move Australia east of New Zealand.

    Bernard Keane in Crikey once more gives us some facts:

    Of the current “surge” in arrivals, 48% are Afghans, and 36% are Sri Lankan. In short, events in Pakistan and Sri Lanka account for nearly 85% of the current increase.

    So Sri Lanka where a civil war ended in May this year, and left hundreds of thousands of Tamils displaced, and Pakistan which… gee is anything bad going on there at the moment? It’s so bad there our cricket team won’t even travel there for a fortnight…

    OK, so there’s a big push, but why Australia – too soft??  Err no. Keane explains:

    Europe is the biggest destination for asylum seekers: 333,000 claims for asylum were made in Europe 2008, including 35,000 in France and 30,000 in the United Kingdom. The United States received just under 50,000 claims and Canada 35,000.

    South Africa received 207 000 claims from asylum seekers.

    In Australia in 2008, 4750 people sought asylum.

    Why do asylum seekers head to Australia? Well, as the figures above show, they don’t.

    Australia attracts disproportionately few asylum seekers, because you can’t get here in a truck, or walk here. But most asylum seekers head to neighbouring countries or countries in their own region, which means that, with about 5m in our own region, including 2-3m Afghans, Australia is on the menu of likely destinations, like it or not.

    Evidence from the United Kingdom suggests family connections are also important in refugees’ choice of destination, and refugees from Commonwealth or former Commonwealth countries tend to head toward other Commonwealth countries because of historic ties and, possibly, language.

    But the other driver is that they don’t have a lot of choice, and this applies regardless of how tough or loose Australia’s refugee assessment process is. Which countries in our region that have signed the UN Refugee Convention? The only ones are Australia, Cambodia, PNG and New Zealand. None of the ASEAN countries have.

    Neither Cambodia nor PNG are in any state to take large numbers of refugees, and you can only get to New Zealand via Australia. Which leaves us. Malaysia is not merely not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, but is known for high levels of corruption, with asylum seekers fruitful sources of bribes and extortion under threat of deportation.

    So it turns out, it’d be probably good for Rudd to take Australia out of the Commonwealth, and also remove us from the UN Refugee Convention.

    The claim is often made by those on the right, that asylum seekers only come by boat, and that these are really “economic refugees” – ones who are just coming here to take advantage of our standard of living. Barnaby Joyce is one in this camp. Here’s what he said upon visiting Christmas Island two weeks ago:

    ‘‘No doubt there is a proportion who are refugees by dispossession and persecution. But a majority appeared to be economic migrants.
    all the people he had seen ‘‘seem very happy here — which is a concern’’.

    Just ponder for a moment the views of a Senator of this country who thinks is it bad that people who are under the care of Australian authorities are “happy”. Does he wish that they were starving? Does he want to see them suffer? Does he think a few ritual beatings would help spice things up? Would that make it less concerning?? What an astonishing thing to say. No wonder they are happy – they are alive after a journey from Pakistan or Sri Lanka undertaken by leaky boat, foot and more leaky boats.

    The fact is those who come by boat are more likely to be genuine refugees than those who come the easy way by plane. As Keane notes:

    Of asylum claims made within Australia by people who have arrived by aircraft, 55% are rejected. The rejection rate of claims made by people who arrive by boat varies between 2-15%.

    But then the Liberal Party never cares about the ones who come by plane…

    I would like Rudd to be less “tough talking”; – it smacks far too much of his trying to protect his right political flank.

    And if he ever brings back temporary protection visas, or the pacific solution, or forces detainees to pay for their detention; well I think I’ll just give up and admit he might as well join the Liberal Party. But then again were he to do bring in those policies he’d be in disagreement with the Liberals. Because while they’re all too happy to say Rudd’s policies have failed, they don't actually have a policy themselves. Here’s the opposition’s Justice and Customs spokesperson, Sussan Ley yesterday on PM:

    SUSSAN LEY: What the Government needs to do is to put in place policies that result in effective border protection which we clearly had in the previous government. If they are uncertain of the way forward, they need to hold the independent inquiry that we're calling for. I'm making the point that the Howard government's border protection policies worked. This Government's border protection policies do not work.

    SABRA LANE: Let's get it absolutely clear here, you do want the reintroduction of temporary protection visas and the Pacific solution and the reintroduction of charging of fees for being in detention?

    SUSSAN LEY: No, I make no specific calls on specific policies. What I say is that the Howard government's border protection policies were tough and that they worked and that the Rudd Government's do not.

    SABRA LANE: When you say in your press release "it's time for Mr Rudd to reinstate the Coalition's successful border protection policies to stop the boats and restore integrity of Australia's borders", it's not conditional on any inquiry?

    SUSSAN LEY: Well, the inquiry's certainly mentioned elsewhere and it's been mentioned continually by me and by the Opposition. It's time for Mr Rudd to reinstate measures that deal with this problem because he is in government and we are not.

    Yep the Libs demand Rudd bring back a policy they won’t even say they will support, except they do support it, but not really, except that it worked, but it’s not their policy, but Rudd should adopt it because…


    So my title is wrong – there are two issues the Libs can agree on. The first is that they should criticise Rudd on asylum seekers, and second is that they don’t actually have a policy on asylum seekers.

    Yep a rabble.

    Tuesday, October 13, 2009

    Rudd puts a stake through the heart of Ruddock

    Ruddock Philip25percentThe common line by politics tragics about Phillip Ruddock is that he is the “Ghost who walks”, or the omrburnsnly undead member of Parliament, or that he is only kept upright by regular doses of formaldehyde. Others simply compare him to Mr Burns from The Simpsons.

    He is rarely heard of nowadays as he whiles away his time on the back bench enjoying a safe seat in Sydney that should be given up to some young Liberal PM wannabe. He only ever rises from his political crypt to talk on the issue of asylum seekers. For some reason he feels bound to defend his legacy as Minister for Immigration under John Howard. But, as Bernard Keane points out in today’s Crikey, Ruddock has nothing to be proud of (Keane refers to Ruddock as “it” in reference to Ruddock himself once referring to a boy locked up in Villawood detention centre as “it”):

    There were 45,000 people in Australia unlawfully in 1996, when Ruddock first applied its tender ministrations to the Immigration portfolio. The following year they shot up to 51,000. A good start for Ruddock, but it was just warming up. Immigration stopped reporting the numbers for a couple of years, but when we next see them, in 2000, they’d climbed to nearly 59,000.

    And as we learn from the Department’s 2004 annual report, they’d peaked at 59,800 in the last months of Ruddock’s stint as minister. So it presided over a 33% increase in illegal immigrants.

    Keane also points out that over 95 percent of illegal immigrants come in through airports not boats . So putting all your resources and attention on the less than 5 percent who come in leaky boats is not only dumb, it is cruel – as it seeks to politicise the most helpless. And I am yet to actually hear anyone tell me just what is the worry about these boat migrants. Does anyone seriously think they are terrorists? Please. They’re desperate to get away from their own coutnry and for some reason want to live in Australia. Process them, see if they’re true refugees and treat them accordingly. Don’t use them as a political tool.

    But there has been an increase in the number of illegal immigrants arriving by boat this year – due mostly to the Sri Lankan civil war and the fact that Afghanistan has gone down the toilet, so today in The Australian, Ruddock came out with this amazing statement:

    “If the numbers keep on increasing at the rate they have been, I think the government will be looking at a pipeline of 10,000 a year or more. They were the sort of numbers we were looking at when we decided we had to send a clear and unambiguous signal."

    Given that this year so far 1648 passengers and 64 crew have arrived by boat, methinks Ruddock has been imbibing in a bit more than just formaldehyde …

    Now one of the common lines about Kevin Rudd is that he’s not a true Labor man, not a true believer, just a policy wonk who just used the ALP so he could become PM; that he doesn’t go for the jugular of his opponents like Keating could; that he doesn’t really believe in anything.

    Well here was Rudd’s response to Ruddock:

    "I draw your collective attention as to what happened to all those folk who were on the Tampa at the time when I seem to recall the then prime minister saying that none of these individuals would ever set foot on Australia or words to that effect. I think that about half the Tampa caseload ended up in Australia by one means or another, and the rest as they say is history.

    “Mr Ruddock was also that minister who said that asylum seekers had thrown their kids overboard. I therefore place zero credibility on anything Philip Ruddock says about anything on that subject at anytime. In one fell swoop, he destroyed his credibility to make comments on this issue.”

    A great response – perfectly targeted, and pretty cutting about Ruddock personally. These words were music to the ears of Labor supporters as well. Rightly or wrongly many on the ALP side still believe Tampa lost the 2001 election (I don’t, but it sure as hell didn’t help), and so many ALP supporters want to hear their man twist the Tampa knife into the Libs, rather than run scared on the issue like Labor did for a number of years. Rudd then went on to address the temporary protection visas:

    Mr Rudd said Mr Ruddock wanted the Howard government's Temporary Protection Visa system and the Pacific Solution, in which arrivals are housed in facilities in distant Pacific islands, reintroduced despite the fact the policy failed to deter nearly 10,000 asylum seekers during its operation.

    “That's in the two years immediately following the introduction of TPVs. So I would say to those who want to bring back TPVs, bring back the Pacific Solution, ask yourself this question: `What is the record in the two years immediately following the introduction of these measures?'. And secondly, why did the Howard government spend more on the Pacific Solution than it did in fact on the actions that were necessary on the high seas, and through our naval resources and others, in dealing with practical problem on the ground.”

    Some good questions there – and shows you can’t keep a policy wonk down (he loves figures and can recite them at will).

    Ruddock’s response – “When the Prime Minister has no arguments of substance he plays the man.”

    Odd for a political ghost to be talking about substance...

    Monday, October 12, 2009

    Mao’s Last Dancer and Australian Book Adaptations


    When I heard that Bruce Beresford was doing an adaptation of Li Cunxin’s autobiography, Mao’s Last Dancer,  I was quite hopeful that it would be a success. When I saw the trailer, I was feeling quite positive about its chances. When I read that it came runner up in the People’s Choice Awards at the Toronto International Film Festival, I started to get quite bullish about its box office potential. And then when on its opening weekend both my parents and my wife’s parents told us they were going to see the film, I knew it was going to do well. Both of them like movies, but unless it is the latest James Bond flick, rarely do they go to see the same films (and generally not on the opening weekend).

    But when the news came that it made $4.3m in its opening week (the fourth best ever by any Australian film), I have to say I let out a bit of a gasp. And the news from this last weekend is in many respects just as stunning, for while it has dropped a spot from second to third, it was only beaten by Couples Retreat – which had been massively marketed with advert after advert and appearances by the stars on Rove etc, and Pixar’s Up (which had been number one for a massive 5 weeks – only The Dark Knight has been able to do that in the past 5 years).

    What it did beat though, was Julie & Julia, the Meryl Street film which would appeal to very much the same segment of the market. Not only that it kept up a strong average screen figure of $7,629 (only bettered in the top 10 by Couples Retreat), made a further $2m to put it at $6.38m thus far, and looks almost a dead set motza to crack the $10 m barrier.

    The last Aussie film to make over ten million (that is not Australia or Happy Feet) was Lantana way back in 2001. In fact only 20 Australian films have ever made over $10m in this country, so it’s no small achievement.

    maoslastdancer One of the reasons I had initially been excited about the chances of Mao’s Last Dancer being successful was that it was an adaptation of a popular book – so the name recognition was already out there, ready to be taken advantage of. And it is one of the many questions I have long had of the Australian film industry – why so few adaptations?

    Looking over the last 3-4 years I find very few. Romulus, My Father in 2007 was quite a successful adaptation of a memoir, making $2.5 million; December Boys, also in 2007 made only $600k; Three Dollars (based on the novel by Eliot Perlman) got to the $1.3m mark in 2005; and the adaptation of Robin Klein’s Hating Alison Ashley in the same year made just over $2m. Other than that there’s none (or at least if they are adaptations, they’re of fairly unknown novels/books).

    Why is it that Tim Winton has never been adapted into film? I know Cloudstreet is being made into a mini-series, and Dirt Music was to made into a film by Philip Noyce, but now seems stuck in developmental hell for whatever reasons, and similarly his novel The Riders was attempted to be made into a film, but got done by budgetary issues. But Cloudstreet was written in 1991, The Riders in 1994, and Dirt Music in 2001. What has the industry been waiting for? By comparison, The Hours by Michael Cunningham won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1999; it won an Oscar for Nicole Kidman in 2002.

    Now look, I know this can sound pretty glib – after all financing a film is hard enough, let alone having to buy the adaptation rights for a novel. I don’t doubt that it is extremely difficult to get all the ducks lined up, but that would not account for so few popular Australian novels being made into films. Where are all the Bryce Courtney adaptations? I am sure the cost of acquiring the rights would be steep – but you don’t think there’s not a market there for Tandia or Jessica (and yes I know Jessica was made into a mini series – but why not a film? After all Jane Austen gets made into films and mini-series?).

    Underbelly was based on the book Leadbelly – why was it made into a TV series and not a film? This is not to disparage TV as a medium – heck Underbelly was great TV (the second series didn’t do as much for me), but there are a lot of real crime books out there now, why isn’t someone trying to be an Australian Martin Scorsese? Surely Underbelly could have easily been an Australian Goodfellas? What about the Sara Henderson? Surely her books like From Strength to Strength would make great films (or TV) – how many women over 40 have read her autobiographies? I’ll wager as many as have read Mao’s Last Dancer. 

    I think it is great news that the extremely popular John Marsden “Tomorrow” series of books are being made into a film. If done well I think they’ll be huge – internationally as well. Young adult fiction should be a gold mine for us. Looking For Alibrandi made $9 million, so why hasn’t Melina Marchetta’s next novel Saving Francesca been adapted? I see that Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief has been optioned by Fox 2000 for adaptation – great news if it happens – the book just got named 8th in the Borders Favourite 100 Books, so you can’t tell me there isn’t an audience in this country that wouldn’t  love to see it on the big screen?

    So ok, I know it’s easy to pick book titles out and say “make it into a film”. Obviously producers have been thinking the same thing (or at least I hope they have), and perhaps the problem is publishers and authors are pricing themselves out of the market – because it’s not like any Australian noscar_lucinda_filmovels are being adapted overseas (despite the occasional talk that crops up about Matthew Reilly getting nibbles from Hollywood!). But something is clearly amiss.

    I don’t know the why, I only ask the why not? Peter Carey’s Bliss won the Miles Franklin in 1981; in 1985 Ray Lawrence’s adaptation of it won Best Film at the AFI Awards.  The last Miles Franklin winner to be adapted was Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda  (which won in 1989!) – though I do acknowledge that the 1999 winner, Eucalyptus, was looking like being made until Russell Crowe had “script issues”. But still – only 2 adaptations since 1980 from our biggest fiction award? By contrast, 8 of the Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction have been adapted in that time.

    As I say, I don’t have the answers as to why – obviously if it was easy there would be more adaptations (one would hope) – but the success of Mao’s Last Dancer demonstrates that when you start with a popular book, the audience will come (course it also helps to have Bruce Beresford behind the lens!) and it is something I hope to see more of in the future.

    Perry Middlemiss at his excellent Oz Lit webpage has a list of Australian Film Adaptations. It’s well worth a look – if only to highlight how many there were in the 70s and 80s, and how few in the last 10 years.

    Sunday, October 11, 2009

    How Much does that Book Cost?

    At the moment the Government is considering the case of reducing the restriction on the parallel importing of books. Essentially this would allow overseas publishers to import books into Australia (currently Australian publishers get 30 days after release to publish any book produced anywhere in the world, and once that is done overseas publishers can’t sell that book in Australia). The Productivity Commission has produced a report recommending this be dropped. I won’t be commenting on whether or not they should be or not, because, to be honest I’m not sure. The economist in me says yes, the realist in me says book prices probably won’t come down much anyway (except the latest Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer perhaps), and I also can see reason in the arguments that the Australian fiction sector will be slaughtered.

    What I do want to look at is the actual price of books now in this country, not compared with those overseas, but with those in the same shop.

    Now I love books; this has been made pretty clear in a number of posts I have done on the topic, but I don’t buy a hell of a lot of new books anymore – they are just far too expensive. Yesterday I bought an as-new second hand copy of DeLillio’s Underworld for $9.99. In my local Borders shop, this would have cost me $27.99. As I say, maybe this will come down if parallel import restrictions are dropped, but I have my doubts, if only because on it is now going for US$24.99 (Hardcover admittedly, but the only softcover version is going for US$34.69).

    But the main reason I hate buying new books is that there is such a disconnect between what it costs to produce the product and what it costs to buy it – to the point where I could hold up two books by the same author and you would be lucky to first guess how much they would cost to buy, or second work out which of the two costs more or less (let alone why, and let alone compared to any other book in the store).

    We don’t have this problem with DVDs or CDs. When I go into JB Hi Fi, I know the latest release DVDs will be going for $29.98, some of the older ones will be going for $19.98, $15, 98, $12.98, or in the bargain bin of $9.98 and $6.98. Now that sounds like a lot of different prices, but in reality it’s not. For example, the Pixar DVDs released in the last 5 years or so will cost the same - $15.98; the most recent one will cost more - $29.98 if it’s just out, or maybe $19.98 if it’s been out for a year or so. The older ones such as Toy Story 1 & 2 will be $12.98. Similarly Madagascar 2 is $15.98, Madagascar is $12.98. Daniel Craig’s latest movie, Defiance (a war film), is $29.98, Breaker Morant (an old war film) is $6.98. It makes sense; the consumer feels happy knowing they’re getting what they pay for – you want something new or with special features, you’ll pay more.

    CDs are the same. The latest releases will usually be around $24.99 (though generally all dropped to $19.99) The older ones are a mixture of $12.99 or $9.99. And once again there’s logic. Michael Buble’s latest CD costs $19.99, whereas his first two albums are $12.99. It makes sense. Would you expect to pay the same for U2’s Achtung Baby that came out in 1991, as you would for its latest CD, No Line on the Horizon? Of course not. And if Achtung Baby was, for example, more expensive would you buy it? I wouldn’t, it wouldn’t make sense.

    But let us now walk out of JB HiFi and into the local Borders and pick up Tim Winton’s latest novel Breath (came out last year – same as U2’s latest CD). It will cost $27.50. Right next to it is Cloudstreet, which Winton brought out in 1991 (the same year that Achtung Baby was released). How much less does Cloudstreet cost? Err less??? How about $2.50 more. Yep, Cloudstreet would cost you $29.50. His novel Dirt Music, which came out in 2001, costs the same as Breath - $27.50. Why is this so, I have no idea – Cloudstreet is massively more popular than Dirt Music, and yet costs more? So much for the theory of supply and demand…

    Now look, I know I could try and buy them at an Angus and Robertson store, or some other shop and find all three cheaper, but I am not interested in finding the cheapest book, I am looking for some logic of why a book costs what it does. Yeah I could find some cheaper DVDs in Target or Big W than in JB Hi-Fi (and vice versa), but within each store, the price of DVDs and CDs always makes sense. I could go into any bookstore in Australia and be found grasping for logic.

    I decided to focus on Penguin Classics – as these all involve out of copyright authors, and are the same format, so production costs would be pretty similar. Let’s look at Dickens:


    Now this is not all his books (just the ones in the store). I own all of them except two. Guess which ones. Yep, Barnaby Rudge and Our Mutual Friend. Barnaby Rudge comes in at $18.99, almost twice that of Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities. Now obviously demand comes into play here – Oliver, and Two Cities are more popular than Barnaby Rudge, and in effect what we have here is a virtual demand curve of Dickens’ novels, but even still, why is David Copperfield $11.99, and Great Expectations $10.99?

    Perhaps the difference in demand is that finite, but I doubt it – and the difference in the cost of production would not be that great (if there is any). And I doubt Bleak House, which came out as a mini series a couple years ago, is less popular than Nicholas Nickleby, and yet the first costs $16.50, and the latter $15.99. And why the 5o cent difference? You never see such small differences between the prices of DVDs and CDs. Pink’s M!sunderstood CD won’t cost $10.50 and her I’m Not Dead won’t cost $9.99 – no they’ll both cost the same.

    And yet when we have a look at Jane Austen, all of her novels sell for $10.99, and there is no way in hell you can tell me Mansfield Park or Persuasion are as popular as Pride and Prejudice and Emma. While we’re talking popularity (given Pride and Prejudice just came first in the Border’s Top 100 Books of all time contest), why does P&P cost a dollar more than Oliver Twist, or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (which also sells for $9.99)?

    Here’s a graph of forty five 19th Century novels(and a couple from the early 20th century) from Penguin Classics for sale in Borders:


    There’s bugger all logic. Hardy’s Tess can be yours for $8.99, but his Far from the Madding Crowd is $9.99, and his Return of the Native will set you back $16.50. Why? OK, Tess may be popular and thus is cheaper, but why cheaper than Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre, or Oliver Twist. Anyone here think Dostoyevsky’s deep psychological novel, Crime and Punishment, is more popular than Dumas’ all time favourite The Three Musketeers? And yet to spend 630 pages in the mind of Raskolnikov will cost only $10.99, but 720 pages with Athos Porthos and Aramis will require $16.50. Surely those extra 90 pages aren’t worth $5.50?

    And pages seemingly mean nothing. The leviathan Moby Dick (650 pages) is $12.99, the skinny Cranford (250 pages) is $13.50. In fact if we look at a selection of “big-fat-19th century novels” we still see no logic:


    Perhaps there is a reason why Les Mis costs $27.50, War and Peace $24.99 and The Brothers Karamazov $20.99, but it’s beyond me.

    Trollope’s The Prime Minister is the fifth of his “Palliser” novels. It costs $25.50. Phineas Finn is the second novel in the series – it costs $21.99. Why????

    Why would I buy either of these? How on earth is a book buyer able to feel like they are getting value for money, and not being totally screwed over by the publishers and the book seller?

    What is the mark up of these novels? You don’t need to have read much of Das Kapital to know that if you buy Middlemarch for $14.50 and Our Mutual Friend for $18.99 you’re not exactly paying a standard rate above the cost of producing the actual item.

    In short, the booksellers seem to be screwing book buyers every which way because book buyers have no idea what they should be paying, and so booksellers can maximise their profits to their hearts content – asymmetric information economics in its purest form (the seller has all the knowledge, the buyer has none). 

    And it’s not just adult literary books. Have a look at kids books – say Roald Dahl. image

    His most popular book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was selling for $18.99, three dollars more than The BFG and The Fantastic Mr Fox. Sure Fox is a bit shorter, but the BFG isn’t.

    Why are these all differently priced, and yet all of the 21 books in the Famous Five series are $14.50? All the Mr Men books are $3.99. All the Asterix comics are $32.99 (scandalously expensive).

    In the Harry Potter series we do see logic. The first three all cost $18.99, then the Goblet of Fire is $21.99, followed by the Order of the Phoenix and the Half Blood Prince for $23.99 (they’re a good deal bigger). Now that all makes sense – the most recent, and bigger ones cost more. Rather oddly though, the hardcover copy of the latest Deathly Hollows, was selling for $9.99. Why was it this price? I have no idea – it certainly didn’t have “on sale” stickers on it.

    Even more confusing was when I saw the 2010 version of Leonard Maltin’s movie guide selling for $27.99, and yet a 2009 version sitting right next to it was priced at $45.95! Perhaps Borders thinks there’s a collectors value in an out of date movie guide…

    What that last example shows is that the price of books means nothing. You have no idea if it is good value for money. So few places sell lots of classics, or more literary works – you aren’t going to find Balzac in Big W – so you can’t really compare. But even in stores that do sell a wide selection of books you still have no idea what you should be paying. You hold an Austen novel, it will cost you $10.99, you also hold a Dostoyevsky novel, it is longer and would have required the publisher paying a translator, and yet it costs the same. You grab another Dostoyevsky and it costs $16 dollars more. Why?

    You get some classics of the 20th century – On the Road (25.50), The Catcher in the Rye ($24.99), The Grapes of Wrath ($21.99), Nineteen Eighty Four (24.99), Animal Farm ($16.50), Of Mice and Men ($20.99), One Hundred Years of Solitude ($26.99), A Suitable Boy ($32.99), Underworld ($27.99), Naked and the Dead ($27.50), To Kill a Mockingbird ($23.99). Do you know which ones are good value? Do you know what they would be likely to cost in other shops? I have no idea, and unless you work in a book store, or in the publishing game, I bet you wouldn’t either

    Now maybe the dropping of parallel import restrictions will bring some logic to the prices of books, I don’t know. It would be nice to be able to get to the point such as is the case with DVDs, where I can walk into a store, see some 1950s John Wayne western priced at $19.99, and know that I will be able to get that for $9.99 elsewhere, because at the moment I could be in a book store, pick up a copy of a Dickens novel and not know whether it is cheap or expensive. At the moment you would need to carry around a notebook with various prices of novels written down. Think how much better it would be if you knew Penguin Classics will usually cost you $9.99 or, for some of the longer ones, $12.99, and for some of the translated ones $15.99, and for the more less known versions $21.99. But we don’t know this, we don’t even know what each of Dickens’ novels should cost, let alone if one of them should be cheaper or dearer than a Jane Austen novel.

    That may be nice capitalism, but for me, as a book lover, all it does is send me to the second hand book store, knowing I’ll always be getting value there.