Monday, January 31, 2011

Cyclone Yasi: the uninvited QLD guest

I lived in Cairns for 11 years from Jan 1995 to Jan 2006. During that time my wife and I, like most who live in the north for any length of time, experienced a couple cyclones and numerous cyclone warnings that didn't eventuate.

The first one we went through was Cyclone Justin in March 1997. As relative newcomers to cyclone country we prepared for it with ultra due diligence. We taped the windows, stocked up the pantry with canned goods, filled the basins with water (in case the water supply was cut off) and tied down everything we could find in the little courtyard of our townhouse.

The cyclone hit early in the morning, and when it crossed the coast – hitting the northern beaches of Cairns it was a Category 2 cyclone. Rather fortunately, our townhouse in Redlynch (a town about 20 km north west of Cairns proper) was perfectly situated so that the winds blew parallel with the building. It meant we could have our back door open and watch the trees all bending to the left and not have too much concern that our place was in danger. The eye passed and then after ten minutes or so the trees were all bending to the right. It was very exciting to us cyclone newbies, and we were on the phone to our parents explaining what was happening like it was some great adventure.

Of course it wasn’t – while Justin was not a severe cyclone when it crossed the coast, it still did lead to 7 deaths in Australia and 26 in PNG.

For us however the biggest problem was the lack of electricity. One thing people watching from the south forget is that cyclones hit in the summer or early autumn, when the temperatures are pretty bloody hot, and so you can be sitting around in 32C heat, with 95 per cent humidity and no air conditioners, no fans and no fridge (the days after the recent QLD floods were much like this).

I was working at the Cairns Casino at the time, and unusually was on day shift. And so the next day when the casino opened (the casino was often the first thing opened after a cyclone) I was in there dealing blackjack to the many people who had thronged there – some because they were gambling addicts who we had had to push out the door a few days earlier when we closed due to the coming cyclone, but others were there because we had power and beer on tap.

That day Cairns and the tablelands that feed the Barron River which flows just north of Cairns city had around a 12-15 inches of rain, and thus by the time my shift was over the roads home were all blocked.

The casino management, bless them, put those of us who were flooded in up at the associated casino hotel – in the top suites no less. My wife happened to have been in town when the roads were closed, so the both of us enjoyed a nice night in a top hotel all due to the cyclone.

So I can’t say it was an overly bad experience.

For the next few years there were warnings of cyclones that then turned out to sea or became rain depressions, and thus we – like many – developed a kind of ambivalence to cyclone warnings. Yeah we tied down things in the back yard, but we didn’t get too worried unless the cyclone was at least category 2 – Category 1? Pah, that’s a storm with a name.

It was all a bit stupid really, and we took it to the logical lengths of stupidity so that by the time 2000 rolled around and Cyclone Steve came rumbling in, we were around at a friends place having a “cyclone party”. By this time we all had the internet and so were able to track it in on the Bureau of Meteorology site while we drank our beer and ate of barbecued chops. It was actually a perfect February day (Feb 27), and we couldn't believe that such a fierce storm could only be 150km away, only 100km away, only 75 km away, only 50 km away only, hey where's all the power gone and why am I now having trouble standing up?

The winds picked up literally in an instant. One moment we we all just chatting and laughing and thinking maybe it’s not going to hit; the next moment we were all quickly rushing to get home.

We drove home beating the front by minutes – we walked in the door, switched on the lights and then the power went off and the winds came. We found out the next day that a massive tree had fallen over and blocked the road we had just driven only some 5 minutes earlier. It was a worse cyclone in many ways than Justin – Justin had had nice constant wind, this one came in strong gusts – as though the sky was trying to rip out the trees with short violent tugs. The way the boughs and branches were flying around I was truly worried about the thought of a tree coming through our bedroom windows. A tree did fall on the carport, but fortunately there was no damage to our car – only the fence.

No one died in Queensland from Steve, but it took roofs, and brought down masses of trees – the damage bill was around $100m.

One thing about cyclones is that due to the damage to vegetation, the Cairns council would tell people just to dump the branches etc on the footpath out the front of your home and the council would come and clear it up. Suspiciously after such times it seems quite a few people would decide to also do a bit of backyard maintenance that may not completely have had to do with the cyclone. If there was one perk from a cyclone, this was it – free green waste disposal.

And that was it for our cyclone experience (apart from the near misses and never cames)

19146acyclonesIn 2005 Cyclone Ingrid hit north of Cooktown, but in Cairns we didn’t feel it, so that doesn’t count.

Two months after we left Cairns, one hit that makes everyone realise just how complacent we can be about cyclones – Cyclone Larry. This was a Category 4 cyclone when it crossed near Innisfail, and it actually felt odd that I had missed it – I almost felt guilty that we were no longer there.

Because of Larry, the worry about cyclones is now much more heightened than it was in those carefree times of the early 2000s when Cairns kept getting missed. But a quick squiz at the map of cyclones in North Queensland from 1906-2006 shows that it never is good to get too comfortable. The place is a magnet for the things.

Earlier this week it was Bowen’s turn to get hit – Cyclone Anthony came for a visit. It was a Category 2, and thankfully no one was greatly hurt, though there will be damages to vegetation and a few roofs.

And so we would all like to think that Queensland has caught a break  - that a cyclone that could have been horrendously destructive came and went and hasn’t done much more than blow down some trees.

But no. No break has been caught, because coming via Fiji is Cyclone Yasi.

And it means business.tcyasi

Have a look at the size of that thing.

Let’s compare it to Anthony:


Anthony is the little white patch on the QLD coast.

Yasi is the thing that looks the Earth equivalent of Jupiter’s red dot.

Now the good thing is just because it seems to stretch in diameter from Brisbane to Cairns doesn't mean both Brisbane and Cairns will be in a Cyclone – though it may mean that they’ll both get lots of wind and rain from the storm.

So do we need to worry about it? Where is it headed?

The answers – yes and anywhere from Cairns to Mackay, but Townsville is looking a good bet:

IDQ65001 (3)

What is also looking like a good bet is that it will be a Category 4 – the same as Larry. Here’s how the Bureau of Meteorology describes Category 4:

4. Severe Tropical Cyclone
225 - 279 km/h
Very destructive winds
Significant roofing and structural damage. Many caravans destroyed and blown away. Dangerous airborne debris. Widespread power failures.

Now let me tell you, that is scary. Cyclone Larry, Cyclone Tracey scary.

You think – oh caravans are light, they wouldn’t take much to get destroyed. But then ponder “blown away”, and then ponder a caravan flying through the air and think how light it would seem then, especially it is was about to crash into the side of your own house.

After Yasi hits no doubt politics will come into play, and the costs and the flood levy and everything else will be debated – God help us Warren Truss will probably suggest it’s all a symptom of Labor wanting to pork barrel ALP seats.

But for now, I just say to those in the north – keep safe, and here’s hoping the worst thing you’ll need to do is clean up your backyard. 

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Flick of the Week: “You're dead, son. Get yourself buried”.

This week’s flick of the week takes us from the rip-roaring music of Elmer Bernstein from The Great Escape to his jazz-soaked score of Sweet Smell of Success.220px-Sweetsmell

Using Elmer Bernstein as the link is a bit of a cheat, because he has according to imdb, 240 credits as a composer, and so I could have gone anywhere with him.

Sweet Smell of Success had a long gestation. It was originally a novella by screen writer to be Ernest Lehmann. Lehmann (who I used as the link from North by Northwest to West Side Story) is possibly the greatest screenwriter in the history of Hollywood (didn’t win an Oscar of course) wrote the screenplay, but had to pull out due to illness and the duties were given to dramatist Clifford Odets.

Odets in the 1930s helped found Group Theatre a theatre collective that practised the art of “method acting” (though it wasn’t called that, then). Odets as the main playwright of the group wrote such plays as Awake and Sing! Waiting for Lefty and Goldenboy. His style involved an almost overwrought language of the street, and his politics were decidedly left wing.

He testified before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC) and named names – though only those who had already been named. He thus was not blacklisted, but reportedly he suffered great guilt from his testimony.

He was parodied in the 1989 Coen Brothers film Barton Fink.

He also went through Lehmann’s working script, tore it down, rebuilt it and created one of the great screenplays in American film.

The story involved press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) who does all he can to worm his way in to the life (and thus pages) of newspaper columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster, modelled on Walter Winchell). Hunsecker uses Falco to do his dirty work – including getting rid of Steve, the jazz musician boyfriend of Hunsecker’s sister, because Hunsecker doesn't like him (and also because he pretty well doesn’t want anyone to have his sister). Falco tries to twist Hunsecker into saving Steve’s career, but it all goes wrong, as could only occur in this tale of New York at its most seedy and gin soaked.

sweet-smell-1-400The influence Odets’s testimony before the HUAC also hangs over the plot which involves the naming of names in Hunsecker’s column, framing Steve for things he didn’t do – including being a communist. It is political without actually being so.

The film also crackles with amazing dialogue that you figure stars of today would kill for:

J.J. Hunsecker: What's this boy got that Susie likes?
Sidney Falco: Integrity - acute, like indigestion.
J.J. Hunsecker: What does that mean - integrity?
Sidney Falco: A pocket fulla firecrackers - looking for a match! [grinning]
Sidney Falco: It's a new wrinkle, to tell the truth... I never thought I'd make a killing on some guy's "integrity."

Sidney Falco: Watch me run a 50-yard dash with my legs cut off!

Rita: What am I, a bowl of fruit? A tangerine that peels in a minute?

Sidney Falco: The cat's in a bag and the bag's in a river.

J.J. Hunsecker: I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic.

Truth be known, stars back then killed for it. Tony Curtis’s biggest roles to date had been playing Houdini in “Houdini” and Tino Orsini in “Trapeze” – next to Burt Lancaster. Lancaster, who had been nominated for an Oscar in From Here to Eternity was able to claim status as a “serious actor”, but Curtis was a matinee idol, and desperate to get a meaty role. The studio didn’t want him to have it – figuring it’d hurt his fan-base of teenage girls. In the end he got it, and it was a good thing too. Despite being mostly known for his lightweight roles, this one was right in the wheelhouse for the New York raised Bernard Schwartz, and this, along with his role in Some Like it Hot, is his best work.

Lancaster also does great work – the venom that he spits at Falco is potent – the way he says “match me Sidney” that makes no secret he views Falco as little more than a thing to be used and abused according to his whim. Lancaster had an odd career: lots of dross, but a handful of top drawer films – this is one of his best.

Bernstein gives the film a great jazz-based score that creates an indelible 1950s flavour. It is one of those films which would also be a crime to see colourised – it’s a black and white town, where the smoke drifts around the nightclubs and each line is delivered with a cruel bitterness drowned in gin.

It’s not a feel-good film. It sits nicely with another great work of the era The Hustler that tells of the lives of people lived mostly at night.

At the time, like many great films, it was ignored mostly by the critics and the audience. The winner of Best Picture that year was Bridge on the River Kwai and while I love that film, this at the very least should have been nominated. Odets as well should have been nominated. That year however the Best Screenwriting Oscar went to Pierre Boulle despite not writing the screenplay of The Bridge on the River Kwai. Boulle wrote the novel on which that film was based – the two writers who did write the screenplay were Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson – both of whom had been blacklisted by the HUAC.

Previous Flicks of the Week:

The Great Escape – Richard Attenborough
Elizabeth – Geoffrey Rush
Pirates of the Caribbean – Johnny Depp
Platoon – Willem Dafoe
Inside Man – Clive Owen
Gosford Park – Robert Altman
The Player – Tim Robbins
Bull Durham – Kevin Costner
Field of Dreams – Ray Liotta
Goodfellas – Samuel L Jackson
Pulp Fiction – Frank Whaley
Swimming with Sharks – Kevin Spacey
Working Girl – Sigourney Weaver
Aliens – Bill Paxton
Apollo 13 – Ron Howard
American Graffiti – Richard Dreyfus 
The Graduate – Dustin Hoffmann
All the President’s Men – Jason Robards
Once Upon a Time in the West – Henry Fonda
Mister Roberts – Jack Lemmon
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

Friday, January 28, 2011

Friday Night Relaxer: Picks and Tubes

This week I was going to write about the Hottest 100, but someone did that.

I was then going to do a list of things. But Ben Eltham wrote in Crikey today that lists are stupid. So I’ll wait a week, before doing another one.

And thus I am a tad bereft of ideas for a Friday night post (aside from the two I have already written). So I shall fall back on some fun little nuggets thrown around this week on Twitter.

The first comes via Stephen Murray who found this pretty well known advert for Tim Tams from the 1990s. It is probably the only Tim Tams’ advert I can actually remember (I can’t even think of what is the current advert for Tim Tams). What I didn’t realise was that the actress was none other than Cate Blanchett.

Pity the poor blokes who are in it with her - no doubt their careers were at the same stage; one has gone on to slightly better things… They must look back and think, well at least I can say I starred opposite Cate.

The second is from Red Bakersen. It’s a trailer for a film that imagines what Pixar’s “Up” would have been like if it had been made by Disney back in the 1960s. The version presented – as one of those films that so often used to crop up on TV in my youth as a Sunday matinee – is quite spot on, I thought. The casting of Spencer Tracey is perfect.

Finally, from the venerable David Paris, comes a version of Cee Lo Green’s “F**k You” (Number 7 on the Hottest 100) done in sign language. If for nothing else, it is good watching because it let’s you know how to swear in sign language, and you just never know when that kind of knowledge will come in handy.

Have a great weekend!

Mitchell and Gillard: talk back at its most pathetic

This morning, Julia Gillard, as is the case when needing to sell something, was all over the airwaves and TV screens. She fronted up to David Koch where she had to try and explain to him that the contingency fund in the budget was not a slush fund to be used for a rainy day. It is used for programs that are demand driven – eg Medicare that are not capped – ie you don’t get to the end of the financial year and see the Government say, “Sorry no more operations for you, we’ve used up all our money for Medicare this year”. In the budget they estimate how much they need for such ongoing and demand driven programs but if, for whatever reason, they under-estimate, there is money available.

Personally, I wouldn't want the Government to muck around too much with that.

She then went on 3AW to “talk” with Neil Mitchell.

Now I’ll admit I am no fan of Mitchell’s. I think on his best days he is a bad interviewer who takes everything personally. The main reason he went in hard on Abbott last year was because Abbott had admitted on the 7:30 Report that he had pretty well lied to Mitchell when he had said to him that he wouldn’t bring in any new taxes. Mitchell wasn’t going to stand for that, and so in he went studs up, and forced Abbott to sign a pledge not to bring back WorkChoices.

My biggest issue with Mitchell is that when he doesn’t get an answer he likes (ie one that confirms his pre-held belief) he lets out groans and sighs like a petulant school boy. It is the kind of response that were my 7 year old daughter ever to do it, I would be quickly giving her lessons in manners and sending her to her room (though unfortunately, my 7 year old daughter actually likes her room…).

Today against Gillard he put this into overdrive. His views on the BER spend were set in concrete (and oblivious to any actual evidence), so too his views on the levy. He adopted a petty tone, and at one point put on a rather weird voice. Gillard snapped: “Neil,you don’t need to patronise me” which quickly had him back peddling, and then laughably accusing her of patronizing him!

Listen to the interview (16 minutes, good luck) to judge.

Later in the day, on 3AW, Derryn Hinch commented on the interview. Now I am also not a huge fan of Hinch, but I think he makes some good points.

Most conservatives on Twitter that I have conversed with compared Mitchell to Kerry O’Brien. Personally I think the comparison ludicrous – O’Brien uses facts for a start, not lines that he thinks his audience wants to hear. And if you think O’Brien doesn’t have to worry about fact, you should watch the head of ABC sit before the Senate Estimates committee, where any small error of fact is usually raked over by Liberal Senators.

The thing about talk back radio shows like Mitchell’s is that mostly Liberal Party voters listen to it (and old ones at that), so there’s bugger all upside for Gillard doing them. And if she comes a gutser, there can be a big fall out – as it will be reported widely (and “victories” of course, will not).

Personally, after this morning, I’d be inclined to put Mitchell on the black list for a while. He’ll sook about it, but so what? Better he sook to himself than sook while you’re sitting opposite him.

The Oz’s position on the levy is a rough passage

On today’s front page of The Oz  we saw an example of journalism that would make Brooke Vandenberg proud.image

There was a nice big photo of a young woman in a pretty nice house on Brisbane’s riverfront, sitting underneath the headline of

Rough passage for Julia Gillard's flood levy

Now the woman in question, Samantha Gregg, had absolutely nothing to do with that David Uren story, but never mind, the online version of the story used her picture (guess The Oz thought Uren’s words need a bit of a visual distraction).

The story in which Ms Gregg featured was the one below the photo.

The article by Rosanne Barrett featured an interview with four people from Brisbane’s riverside area – Ms Gregg, Jan Carroll, Gabriel Edwards and Waylon Palmer. Carroll, Edwards and Palmer were all in favour of the flood levy. Ms Gregg was not, but admitted she wouldn’t even have to pay it, but her partner would. Ms Gregg even admitted that if the levy was just for a year “then it’s OK”.

So we have 3 for the levy; one not really, but not dead set against it either. So what headline did The Oz use?

Not happy, Julia Gillard - we've done our bit

And the lead? Did Barrett lead with a person who reflected the majority of those whom she interviewed? No. Here’s what she led with:

SAMANTHA Gregg doesn't begrudge her neighbours in flood-hit New Farm more help - it's just that she believes she did her bit before the government came along and put its hand in her pocket.

imageAh the old “hand in her pocket” line. No negative connotations there. I guess it’s a bit like the front page of the Herald Sun with its very lame use of a photo shopped hand. (Would love to know which Herald-Sun journo got to be the hand model!)

To see just how easy it is to slant a story to get the line you want to get, go read the Barrett article, then read my version of it below. In my ‘article’ everything in blue are actual words from the original article – I’ve kept pretty much everything.

Now I’m not suggesting my version is bias-free. But it shows that The Oz has decided to take a line on the flood levy, and regardless of what quotes they got from people, they were desperate to push that line. For mine, if 3 people told me something was OK and one said “meh”, that would be the story I would write.

But then, what do I know?


Flood levy? We’re ready to do our bit

Jan Carroll is eligible for the disaster recovery payment of $1000 and exempt from the Government’s flood levy, but she is willing to pay her bit.

The debate playing out along her Brisbane suburb, which flooded to varying degrees a fortnight ago, will resound across Australia after Julia Gillard yesterday detailed how every taxpayer earning more than $50,000 and not classified as a direct flood victim would pick up part of the multi-billion-dollar cost of rebuilding.

Jan Carroll watched and worried as the Brisbane River inched up through her garden and basement a fortnight ago, but she considers herself lucky that its waters did not enter her home of 17 years. "We thought we were safe, but you're never quite sure," she said. Her electricity was cut for more than two days, making her household . But Mrs Carroll said she had not even considered applying for the payment and did not mind contributing to the tax.

"It's like the bushfires in Victoria; we certainly gave to them," Ms Carroll said.

"When people are in trouble, you help them."

The generally positive reception for the flood levy was reflected on the streets of New Farm yesterday. The riverside inner-Brisbane geography, and the propensity of the usually placid river to flood, mean that it was a patchwork of affected and untouched properties.

imageOn riverside Oxlade Drive, less than 1km from Ms Carroll’s home, Gabriel Edwards had water through her yard and lost power for more than 48 hours, the trigger point for a federal disaster recovery payment of $1000 per person and $400 per child. But the part-time business owner and mother of one said she would not apply for a payment - even though it would exempt her from paying the flood levy.

"We haven't (applied) because we don't need it," she said. "We keep saying we can't believe how lucky we are. Those people who have lost their homes - their lives have changed forever.

"I don't think we can do enough for people who were affected. If taxes pay for people who were affected by this flood then I'm glad to be part of this society."

Nearby on the riverfront, Further down Oxlade Drive, student Waylon Palmer, 26, collected the $1000 disaster payment after his power went out for four days, following a nervous time waiting to find out if his rental home would be flooded.

He agrees with a levy to get the disaster areas back to business as quickly as possible. "It all helps to get people back on to their feet - it really was a disaster."

Similarly Samantha Gregg doesn't begrudge her neighbours in flood-hit New Farm more help - it's just that she believes she did her bit before the government came along and put its hand in her pocket.

Ms Gregg, 23, is prepared to pay the new federal flood levy, but it doesn't mean she is happy the Prime Minister is imposing the temporary tax on middle- and high-income earners.

Her partner, Massimo Guida, donated his time as an electrician to help people get back into their homes around Brisbane, and with the voluntary donations they made on top of that the couple estimates they gave up to $11,000 in time and in-kind donations. "We helped out as much as we could," she said.

"We bought groceries for friends and my partner worked for free checking the wiring."

In the coming financial year, the couple will be up for an additional 0.5 per cent of any taxable earnings above $50,000, and 1 per cent of earnings over $100,000 to fund the rebuilding of infrastructure across Australia. They have not yet totalled their likely tax bill, but believe it will run into the thousands. This is unlikely as to pay over $2,000, a person would need to earn over $275,000 per annum.

In any case, Ms Gregg believes her pay as an administration worker will be under the threshold of the levy, but Mr Guida is resigned to paying the levy. He does however understand that in such time sacrifices are required, and he remains hopeful it will get Queensland back on its feet and kickstart the economy. Ms Gregg’s attitude as well reflects the strongly community minded spirit of those who are not impressed with the flood levy: "I'm not happy about it, but what can you do?" she said. "If it's for a year, then it's OK, even though it will cost us."

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A little levy, that hopes to go a long way

Today Julia Gillard at the National Press club announced the Government's flood relief package. As we all expected after a good week or so of backgrounding to the media, it included a levy.

The levy is not ‘huge’. Yes, it will raise $1.8 billion – which I grant you is a big enough figure that you would get a little bit excited were you to find it between the cushions of your sofa – but in the whole budget perspective it’s not the biggest thing going around. In fact it is so small that you have to wonder why the Government is bothering (as Possum nicely points out). image

The impact of the levy on householders is also not too severe – 96 cents a week if you earn $60,000; $2.88 a week if you earn $80,000; $8.65 if you earn $120,000. Given all the talk in advance this week about the levy this amount seems rather small – perhaps finally the ALP has worked out how to come out with a policy that fits well with the pre-sale rhetoric. The progressive nature of it also fits in nicely with their working-class base.

The package also included the government dumping a stack of environmental subsidies and other programs:

  • Not proceeding with the Cleaner Car Rebate Scheme
  • Abolishing the Green Car Innovation Fund
  • Reducing and deferring spending on the Carbon Capture and Storage Flagships and Solar Flagships programs and the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute
  • Abolishing the Capital Development Pool from 1 January 2012
  • Discontinuing funding for the Australian Learning and Teaching Council
  • Reducing the National Rent Affordability Scheme dwelling target
  • Redirecting funds from the Priority Regional Infrastructure Program and Building Better Regional Cities Program
  • Capping annual claims under the Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) Vehicle Scheme
  • Capping funding for the Renewable Energy Bonus Scheme – Solar Hot Water Rebate
  • Not proceeding with Round 2 of the Green Start Program
  • Capping funding for the Solar Homes and Communities Plan
  • Withdraw funding to the O-Bahn City Access project.

These cuts are smart politics. Few voters will care about the Green Car Innovation fund or the Cleaner Car rebate scheme (especially as it was known everywhere as the cash for clunkers scheme).

The levy is small enough and cuts in at a level high enough also for it not to involve much political pain. Sure some talk-back shock jocks will like to make a big deal about people deciding not to donate money now, but personally I think such impacts are massively overstated (unless you think most people have been waiting to donate up till now). People also generally know there is a difference between private donation and things done by the Government. People don’t donate to rebuild a road, they donate to help provide for people who have lost everything.

Gillard’s speech as well was smart – and quite well received. Laurie Oakes on Twitter soon after wrote:

The most prime ministerial Gillard performance so far.

It was a decent speech that had some good lines:image

I also went to Toowoomba to express my admiration for the way Australians have started rebuilding already.  Whether with a mop or a shovel or a bulldozer, Australians see what needs to be done and are doing it.

It is no different for the Government. I see what needs to be done and I will do it.

The great floods of this summer have destroyed billions of dollars of wealth and robbed us of billions of dollars of income.  In time they may prove to be the most expensive disaster in Australian history.

We are grieving.

We are burying the dead.

We are thanking many thousands for their courage and selflessness.

We are moving from crisis to recovery.

Now is the time to count the cost and to start to rebuild.

That is a good way to get the discussion on to what she wants it to be on – the rebuilding, the recovery – and show that she and her Government are doing something, rather than talking about it. The line: “I see what needs to be done and I will do it” is a cracker. 

She made her case for the levy:

Treasury’s preliminary estimates are that GDP growth in this financial year will be around half a percentage point lower due to the floods.  The Treasurer will be saying more about the future impact on the economy in coming days.

But we still have the advantage that our overall economy is strong and that means we have the capacity to pay as we go”.

With our growing economy and rising national income, we can pay for rebuilding now.  And if we can, we should.  We should not leave the task of finding the money until future years.

My experience in Government since 2007 tells me that while we must plan to sustain growth we must never take future growth for granted, so we should not put off to tomorrow what we are able to do today.

Solely borrowing to rebuild Queensland is a soft option I am not prepared to consider.

My Cabinet’s job is still to make the decisions which will bring the Budget back to surplus in 2012-13.

In a growing economy, we pay as we go.

Now personally I think the whole “we pay as we go” line is pretty simplistic in an economic sense – but it has nice cut through (though, please don’t over do it and use it every interview). The whole not putting off till tomorrow what we could do today is also a good argument FOR a Government borrowing, but that’s ok.

My main quibble with the speech, and also her answers to some of the (generally very good) questions, was that she played up the strengths of the economy so well that it rather undercut the need to have a levy at all.

Abbott of course came out against it. His opposition may have been effective were it not for the fact that almost 12 months ago he was making a big deal about paying for his paid parental leave scheme with a levy (which he was at very great pains back then not to call a tax). It makes him and the Liberal Party MPs coming out in opposition to the levy seem the biggest hypocrites going round. Gillard obviously thinks Abbott’s opposition to the levy is good for her, because when the opportunity came at the Press Club for her to mention Abbott’s position she, for the only time in response to a question, looked straight at the camera rather than the questioner and said:

I’ve seen what the Leader of the Opposition has had to say about that, and too the Leader of the Opposition, to the Liberal Party, to the Coalition I would simply say, if it was good enough to actually say you would impose a levy to fund their election commitments how can it not be good enough to have a levy to fund the rebuilding of Queensland? How can you possibly justify that?

It was a nice slightly feistily delivered line. The last question was delivered with withering disdain.

For those of you wondering what line Gillard will take come Question Time in February, you’ve just seen it. The ALP will bash Abbott again and again with his own policy. It was a policy the Liberal Party didn’t even want, and many must have hoped after the election it was gone, but the ALP will use it again and again in the next few months. Abbott may say as he tried today that his levy came with a drop in company tax so it really didn’t cost anything. But such lines only serve to highlight his economic illiteracy.

My main dislike of the levy is the implication behind it that somehow we must get back to surplus by 2012-13 or God help us inflation will run rampant and all will be lost. The fact is this levy will not do much of the “heavy lifting” in terms of getting us back to surplus - that will, as ever, be done by tax receipts (company tax ones). But today Gillard at least went away from talking up the glories of surplus and used language that is economically meaningful:

imageThere is unprecedented demand in many parts of Australia for skilled labour. Unemployment is already low and participation is already rising.  And that’s before we add one extra tradie or truck driver to rebuild after the floods.

There is unprecedented pressure on Australia’s infrastructure as well.

More infrastructure is already needed to nurture the mining boom and support economic growth, so the Government is investing in long lived economic assets and infrastructure like high speed broadband, ports, roads and rail. Now we have thousands of kilometres of roads and rail to rebuild as well.

Simply spending to rebuild without addressing the balance between supply and demand in the economy as a whole is not an option.

That would only drive up the cost of skilled labour and the cost of building materials and other economic inputs, reduce value for money in the rebuilding itself, rob our mining industry and other economic sectors of the skills and material they need, and ultimately spill over into higher inflation and interest rates.

To make up for the demand we are putting into the economy with our rebuilding efforts the Government must take some demand out of the economy at the same time.

So sound Budget principles say we should pay as we go – and sound economic principles say we should not add to capacity pressures.

Now that all makes good sense and doesn’t use the return to surplus three years early” line which is so much economic bull. In fact she only mentioned the word “surplus” once in her speech and that was when she said:

My Cabinet’s job is still to make the decisions which will bring the Budget back to surplus in 2012-13.

But other than that, it was macroeconomic fundamentals rather than budgetary voodoo. I may argue that we can afford to borrow to pay for the rebuild rather than raise a levy, but I can’t fault the logic of Gillard’s argument as she made it.

There will definitely be a skills shortage due to the rebuilding, and the reorganisation of the infrastructure programs in Queensland is a good idea – after all you build infrastructure where it is most needed, and there’s no point upgrading a road if there is a highway elsewhere that is completely stuffed. The decision to allow quicker approval for 457 visas is also smart – though it does only serve to highlight that we don’t have enough skilled people in this county (and I write this as a bloke who is completely without such skills).

The politics of this all will be very interesting. The Greens of course will hate the cuts to the environmental subsidies and if they do let this through, you can bet they will be making the ALP pay when it comes to this part of Gillard’s speech:

The key to these carbon abatement program savings is my determination to deliver a carbon price.

There is complete consensus that the most efficient way to reduce carbon is to price carbon. Some of these policies are less efficient than a carbon price and will no longer be necessary – others will be better delayed until a carbon price’s full effects are felt.

The Independents seem to be a tad fence sitting on the levy – it seems they would like a permanent disaster-insurance levy. Such things sound nice when you just flash them out in a TV grab, but implementing them is a touch more tricky – such as when you have to decide what things would the fund pay? Would it for example help pay for people whose houses are destroyed but which were uninsured? The last thing you would want is to create any sort of a disincentive for people to take out their own insurance. But if the independents are after a permanent levy, I can’t see them knocking back a temporary one (though I have no idea what Steve Fielding’s view on it all is) .

So the battlelines (to use the phrase so beloved by Abbott) are set. The ALP are for the levy – all Australians pitching in to help out, and we’re still going with the NBN – and Abbott is against the levy and wanting to cut away at lots of “fat”(most of which will involve things he is regurgitating from the 2010 election) and the NBN.

I don’t think the ALP is scared of this fight – I think they’ll play the “Why was it good enough 6 months ago, but not good enough for the struggling Queenslanders” line very hard. (And they’ll love that the Liberal Premiers seem to be supporting the levy.) It is about time they (and Gillard especially) start playing hard – they and Gillard have been in a funk since the election. People wanted Gillard to be “a leader” during the floods but she is better suited to the battle. Above all this year she has to not be afraid to look and sound tough – and  that doesn't mean scream and yell a-la Abbott or Costello or even Keating – it means be steely.

One of the main reasons I was so surprised by her inability to truly connect during the floods is that she is as good as anyone at getting across her meaning with a few words – just think of her saying “game on” to Abbott last year. She can cut through quickly and with great understatement – she is also very good when just having a chat with people. It was almost like she didn’t know what tone to adopt during the floods. 

She had no such problems today; nor will she in Parliament.

It’s a pity Question Time is still two weeks away; the political fight of 2011 should be a cracker.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Rafa’s slam cut down at the hamstrings.

imageTonight Rafael Nadal lined up in a Quarter Final match against fellow Spaniard David Ferrer. They had met 14 times before, with Nadal winning the last seven matches.

In the midst of his best run of form at the Grand Slams, Nadal was expected to make it eight in a row and advance to the Semi Finals to meet Andy Murray and then perhaps on to the final where he would go for the seemingly impossible and win the four Grand Slams in a row.

And yet it was not to be. Pretty soon it became obvious that something was not right. He went off for an injury time out, and the commentators soon relayed that it was due to a hamstring injury. From then the result was pretty much decided.

A lesser player would have called it a night, gone up to the net, shook hands with his friend and disappeared off to the change rooms to get it iced. But Nadal is made of that stuff of which champions are formed. He played on, and actually fought bloody hard. He broke Ferrer twice in the first set (but was himself broken three times). The set went for 70 minutes and that Nadal had his chances displays just how good he is – even on one leg he is almost good enough.

Almost though, doesn’t cut it at this level.

The second set went by in 42 minutes and Nadal and everyone watching knew that was it for the match. Did he give up? No he came out and made Ferrer earn it, but when he was broken again and was down 3-0, while sitting at the change of ends he looked on the verge of tears, knowing as he did that his chance of a Grand Slam (non-calendar year though it may be) was gone. And Nadal knows enough about the sport to realise that it is highly likely that this is his last chance to ever win four in a row. Not only do you have to playing brilliant tennis, everything else has to go your way for 12 months – including, as was displayed tonight, your body.

So he lost in straight sets. Ferrer, not being a fool, knew it was a win, however, he knew as well that he had not beaten Nadal at his best. Nadal himself in his press conference after the match was amazingly modest. He showed himself as a true champion saying:

If I am ready to accept both things (highs & lows) the same I think I will have a good career.…

But tennis is sport – and in sport having your body cope with injury, illness and the strains of competing is part of the contest. The history of sport is filled with athletes who “could’ve been great” were it not for injuries. In the 1999 Wimbledon quarter finals, Mark Philippoussis had Pete Sampras on toast. He won the first set, looked the winner, and then his knee gave way. Do we take away Sampras’s title that year? Hell no. Your body has to cope. It’s a sport.

Nadal also acknowledged this fact in his press conference:

It's part of the sport, accept, keep working and try my hardest in the next tournament. I think I am a v lucky sportsman

(A great performance in a press conference at such a moment. All other sportspersons should be forced to watch it, and learn from it)

Nadal’s loss not only ends his chance of the Grand Slam, it ends a couple other runs he had going, and puts into very stark relief the achievements of Roger Federer.

The loss puts an end to his streak of Grand Slam Finals appearances at three in a row. This was his best ever streak – twice before he had appeared in two in a row (French and Wimbledon). It also puts him a long way behind Federer’s record of ten Grand Slam Finals appearances in a row, and also over a year behind Federer’s second best run of eight finals appearances in a row (those two streaks were interrupted by one Grand Slam, meaning between the 2005 Wimbledon and the 2010 Australian Open Federer made 18 of 19 Grand Siam Finals.

The loss also ends Nadal’s streak of Grand Slam semi finals appearances at three. This of course is perhaps Federer’s most stunning achievement – his record is 23.

Let’s put that in some context – from the 2010 US Open, the only players who made the semi final there who also made the semi final at this year’s Australian Open are Novak Djokovic and that guy Federer. So they are the only two who can claim to have a semi-final appearance streak going. As Djokovic made the Wimbledon semi as well (Federer didn’t), he has the current longest streak at three. If he keeps it going till the French Open in 2016, he’ll beat Federer’s record.

Nadal does keep his Grand Slam quarter final streak going – it’s now at an impressive six in a row (equal with his longest ever streak of QFs). This streak is no mean feat either. The only players who made the 2010 US Open Quarter Finals and the Quarter Finals here at the Australian Open were Federer, Nadal, Djokivic and Stanislas Warwrinka. Djokovic actually has a good streak going – he is now up to seven in a row – which ties him with the best achieved by John McEnroe and Mats Wilander.

Federer? He has a streak of Grand Slam quarter finals of 27 in a row. It is the best by a very long way – Ivan Lendl got to 13 in a row.

Now there has been some talk in the media that Federer at his tournament tied with Jimmy Connors at 27 in a row. Well let me call bullshit on that right here.

Connors did get to 27 Quarter Finals in a row BUT that is only if you count the Grand Slam tournaments he appeared in, and if you ignore the ones he skipped. Within that “streak” Connors missed 5 French Opens and 8 Australian Opens. Now I don’t care if he skipped the French Open due to reasons due to the tennis establishment at the time, or if he skipped the Australian Open because he couldn’t be buggered making the trip – the thing about a streak is you have to front up every time. The thing about streaks is that you get to level required regardless of travel, playing surface, injury, illness or opponent.

Federer got to the quarter finals, semi-finals and finals even though he had glandular fever, or back injury. If he were to miss the French Open for any reason, that would end his streak, and it is why Connors’ streak of consecutive Quarter Finals is not 27 it is three.

This tournament is still very much up for grabs. Murray, Djokovic and Federer are all playing high level tennis (a lot of things would need to happen for Ferrer to win). But whoever wins, they’ll know that not only was their talent and skill good enough to get them there, but the condition of their body as well got them over the line.

That is what makes it sport.

Monday, January 24, 2011

When the Levy Breaks

How did it come to this?

Disasters are supposed to be good for Governments – it’s when leaders can show leadership, because let’s face it most of the time leaders go round looking for something to lead – it’s why Howard was big on taking up micro/state level issues: he wanted to be leading the debate on whatever hot button issue he could find, and if he needed to he’d create one. But give Howard his due – when something happened that didn’t actually require confecting in to an issue – such as the Port Arthur massacre – he knew it when he saw it, and he knew it was an opportunity to change the game.

imageBefore the Port Arthur massacre no one would have seriously thought strong gun laws would have been introduced (let alone by a conservative Government). But Howard judged that a shift had occurred and he brought in laws which now are almost universally acclaimed as his greatest non-economic achievement.

Kevin Rudd also liked to go looking for things to lead. He even tried the Howard-route on micro/state issues when he bought into the Bill Henson story. It was clumsy and just made the Labor-base uncomfortable as they saw their leader acting like a poor-man’s Howard. The key to wedging the opposition is to pick an issue the opposition doesn’t want to agree with you on – there was really no problems for Brendan Nelson at the time agreeing with Rudd on Henson.

Rudd however, like Howard, did do well when a real moment occurred requiring leadership – the Global Financial Crisis. He stood up and did what was needed to be done (and for those of you who still disagree, just look at the scoreboard – it worked).

But as with the confected issues, Rudd again did not go the whole way as would have John Howard. Back in October 2008 when Rudd and Swan announced the massive stimulus packages and the western world felt like it was about to fall into the economic abyss, they were still too scared to talk about a deficit. They failed to realise that at such a point, people didn’t give a damn about deficits and just wanted the Government to do something to ensure they kept their job.

Which brings us to the floods and Julia Gillard.  

It took about one day for the media to be asking her about the affect of the floods on the budget – more specifically the “good for some reason we can’t really define” surplus. She batted the question away saying the return to surplus in 2012-13 was still on target. Abbott quickly bought in on the issue dopily suggesting that the cost of the floods meant the NBN should be dumped. Abbott’s argument is puerile, but it is an argument Gillard should not even be needing to have.

After the first press conference I suggested on Twitter that Gillard was again showing the ALP was scared of the “D-word”. Channel 10’s Stephen Spencer, who knows how things work in the press gallery as good as anyone, said that if she had said anything else she would have been crucified as using the floods to get out of a political promise.

That may very well be true (it is always best to assume the conservative media will take the most negative spin on any statement made or not made by Julia Gillard), but a week or so on, the position she has taken has not helped her.

Talk now has moved on to whether or not a flood levy should be established (this seems to have been first leaked to The Oz’s David Uren in a manner so smacking of test balloon that the Government didn’t even let him cite “Government sources").

Now first off, the Liberal Party, and especially long-time Howard Government Minister, Tony Abbott, have shown themselves on the levy issue to be the biggest bunch of hypocrites since the pot came out one morning and called the kettle black. Back in January Abbott had this conversation with Lyndal Curtis about a levy he wanted to introduce:

LYNDAL CURTIS: You've accused the Government of wanting to raise taxes for the CPRS (carbon pollution reduction scheme), for health yet you are proposing exactly that and raising it on one of your core constituencies at a time when they want a cut in company tax.

TONY ABBOTT: Well sometimes, sometimes, you have got to make the tough calls, Lyndal. I mean if we are going to have this scheme anytime soon, it has to be paid for and the fairest way to pay for it is through a levy on larger business.

So it was ok to bring in a levy for maternity leave but not to help pay for flood damage? And if levies are so terrible, where the hell was Tony Abbott when the Howard Government brought in the:image

  • Aircraft Noise Levy
  • Firearms buyback levy
  • Stevedoring levy
  • Dairy industry adjustment levy
  • Ansett levy, and
  • Sugar Industry levy

I guess they were all ok, even though for many of them they were brought in when the budget was in deficit (thanks to Stephen Murray on Twitter for the link).

But still, regardless of whether or not economically the NBN should be cut, or whether or not there should be a levy, and regardless of whether or not Abbott’s position is asinine, hypocritical or economically ignorant, it doesn’t matter, because the ALP should not be having this argument.

The flood was a moment in time that a natural leader would have seized to change the conversation.

Now I don’t mean she should have used the floods politically in an Abbott sense, which was him using the floods to argue against something he was against before the floods. No, what I am talking about is Gillard using the floods to shift political discussion in this country from the years of Costello and Howard to the point where we accept what we all inherently know, namely that deficits or surpluses don’t really matter.

And let me tell you this – they don’t.

In and of itself, whether or not the budget is in deficit or surplus is no indicator of a Government’s ability to manage the economy.  We were fed the line that surpluses and deficits were good by Costello and Howard for a decade (who had seen Keating use it to good effect as well), and the media largely went along for the ride, to the point that the ALP, through Rudd, felt it needed to try and avoid a deficit even though the world economy was collapsing!

What utter madness.

Don’t judge Governments by the size of their surpluses, judge them by the unemployment level, the GDP growth, the interest rates, the inflation rate. Judge them by indicators which actually measure things in the real world that affect real people.

Judging a government by the size or lack thereof of its surplus is like judging a football team by the average age of its players. In and of itself you don’t want your team to be too old or too young, and in the long run too old will inevitably lead to a bubble (see the Australian cricket team, or the Adelaide Crows last year), but a team that is young is not much better – especially if it keeps losing each week. No you judge a team by how many games it wins, and whether or not it wins the flag. 

imageGillard made a decent stab at answering the “why do we need to be in surplus question” when on the 7:30 Report last week:

SCOTT BEVAN: Even if no-one is certain of the amount yet, and you do know, what everyone knows is it is going to be huge and that the lion's share of that cost will be borne by the Commonwealth.  Now in light of that, what economic reason - economic reason - do you have for pushing on for a Budget surplus for 2012/2013?

JULIA GILLARD: Well, put simply, the economic reason is our economy will be running at close to full capacity at that period of time.
We are facing a big repair bill for Queensland and we are facing economic consequences of the floodwaters.

To take an example, Queensland's supplies 80 per cent of our coking coal - the coking coal that comes out of Australia. It exports $100 million of it a day and 40 mines, around about, haven't been able to work during the floods.

So, yes, this is having an impact but we've got to remember our economy is strong, with a large pipeline of investment coming through. That means by 2012/13, our economy will be running hot and when your economy's running hot, that's the right time to be having a Budget surplus and saving for the future.

Now she was right to an extent – a reason for running a surplus is that if the economy is running hot, a deficit will (all other things being equal) be inflationary and off we go on the road to high interest rates. But her second point about Queensland’s coal industry taking a big hit destroys her previous position, because it does not suggest an economy running hot. She says the economy will be running hot in 2012-13, but do we know that for sure now?  The hit Queensland (especially its coal industry) has taken will likely lead to a quarter of negative or near negative growth for Australia’s GDP, when you take a negative hit, putting on a levy is pretty counter intuitive (and so to by the way is the Liberal’s desire to cut back on other areas of spending – that’s not going to improve growth either).

So Gillard, by taking the surplus or death line has given herself almost no out.

If the hit to the economy is worse than expected (in growth terms) then she has instituted contractionary fiscal policy at a time the economy is contracting. If the GDP growth hit is not so bad, then she will have to explain why she is instituting a levy on something that was not as bad as expected, and will also be trapped into Abbott’s dumb (economically, but smart politically) game of you should have cut the NBN etc. Either way she is in a position that does not work for her or the ALP.

If she gets the budget back into surplus with a levy, she’ll find no one really gives a damn, because the levy will get the credit not anything she has done (in effect taxpayers will think they paid for the surplus – Howard got credit for the surplus because people didn’t feel like they had had to sacrifice to get it – so they’ll be no joy for the ALP at all). If the economic-hit from QLD isn’t too bad, then the Government will still have a levy, but one that people will now think is unnecessary.

So basically we see the ALP in a position where they will get back to surplus and no one will care one little bit that they have.

Far better to have thrown out the rule book. Far better to have realised this was a moment in time in which a shift has occurred – namely, who gives a shit about surplus or deficit – fix my house, the roads, my kid’s school, the local hospital.

Far better for Julia to be saying that questions of surplus or deficit are secondary (nay, almost irrelevant) at times like this. Far better to say that of course in usual times Governments should be striving to be in surplus, but look around you, does anyone here see usual times? The people of Queensland are crying out for help, does Tony Abbott really think we should be cutting back on services, cutting back on spending or infrastructure, and tightening our belts when people are without homes? And as for cutting NBN? Well I’m sorry but the challenges of the future don’t go away because of tragedies – the NBN was necessary for the future 4 weeks ago, it remains necessary for the future today. You don’t stop building infrastructure whenever a natural disaster occurs – in fact as we rebuild Queensland we will build the NBN. We will rebuild Queensland better than before.

And surplus or deficit? We’ll leave that until the full economic picture becomes clear. Really, right now, it is a side issue for economists and journalists – I’ll care about the real world.

And yes I know she would be “using the floods”, but I look around and I see Abbott having no such concerns, and I see him getting zero criticism from the media. And at least it may lead to a better economic discussion in this country.

Seize the moment – be bold, and lead.

Won’t happen of course.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday Night Relaxer: The Pixar Genius

Last year a first occurred in American cinema going. The animated film, Toy Story 3 came number 1 at the box office. But that wasn’t a first – animated films have been number one quite a few times – going all the way back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, and more recently Shrek 2 was number 1 in 2004. No, the first was that not only was Toy Story 3  in the top 10 box office, but so too were Despicable Me, Shrek Forever After, How to Train Your Dragon and Tangled.

Half of the top 10 most watched films in North America were animated. It was much the same story worldwide – four in the top ten (and Tangled came 11th).

If you think there have been a few more animated films around of late, you’d be right. Here’s a look at how many animated films have made it in the American top 25 since 1980 (I could do Australia but the US data is freely available so I’ll stick with that, and plus we broadly have the same tastes – though I’ll do a post on that one day perhaps))


As you can see, back in the 1980s there was a bit of a dearth of animated films. Disney had all but shut up shop after 1981’s The Fox and the Hound, and the one film in 1983 and 1987 were re-issues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

In 1989 there was The Little Mermaid, and this was followed in 1991 and 1992 by Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin (Aladdin was the number film in ‘92). But even despite the money and the awards that came with those films, animation still didn’t kick off.

In 1995 an animated film again came number 1 at the box office, but this time it was not a traditional Disney film with a score by Broadway composers or Elton John (like The Lion King which came second in 1994). The film of course was the Pixar computer animated film, Toy Story

It changed an industry.

Yes it took a while (the development time of such films is pretty lengthy), but by the time its follow up A Bug’s Life came out in 1998, Dreamworks had joined the party with Antz. Then in 2001 came Shrek- and became the first animated film to beat a Pixar film at the box office – Shrek came 3rd, Monsters Inc, 4th), and there was no turning back for Hollywood. 

By now the studios had really caught on to the money pit that can be good animated films. Audiences had come to see them as perfect family fare – films kids will love, and films parents not only don’t mind seeing, but also love as well. And then came the flood. From 2003 the rolling 5 year average has gone from two animated films in the top 25 to now over five. Twenty per cent of the most watched films each year are now animated. Since 2001 there has also been a Best Animated Feature category – something that would have been thought absurd only 10 years earlier.

The reason for all this of course is Pixar. Sure Dreamworks have come along to be the Rolling Stones to Pixar’s Beatles, but had not the computer animation and story telling of Toy Story worked, movie studios would still be wondering how they could replicate the popularity of TV shows like The Simpsons on the big screen.  The Simpsons of course is also the grandfather of all of this. The smart humour of The Simpsons taught adults to not be embarrassed about watching animation – it was seen as not just Disney schmaltz. And while Aladdin had some of that attitude, it wasn't until Toy Story (and yes, Shrek) that it really caught hold in cinema.

Since 1995 anyone who has dismissed animated films as ‘just for kids’, has missed out on some of the best films of the past 15 years. The number of critics who put Toy Story 3 as their best film of the year – ahead of The Social Network or The King’s Speech – is testimony to this fact. You don’t need to be a kid or even have kids to enjoy Pixar films – in fact given the sophistication involved in their scripts and storytelling, being an adult is an advantage.

All this is a long way round to introduce my ranking of the Pixar films. I could have done a top ten of animated films, but I’ll just stick with Pixar – it’s a tough enough task. So here we go from bottom to top:

BugslifeposterNumber 11:  A Bug’s Life

The film about an ant who saves his colony is nice, but far too kid targeted. The same year, the less popular Dreamworks Antz came out – I prefer that – if only because Dreamworks realised that ants have six legs and not four. The ants in A Bug’s Life were just far too “Disney” for me.

Kevin Spacey as the evil leader of the grasshoppers, “Hopper” and Richard Kind as his brother “Molt” are fun. The work of David Hyde Pierce (of Frasier fame) as the stick insect is also good. But Julia Louise Dreyfus and Dave Foley as the lead voices are pretty bland – much like the film.

Verdict: Ants have six legs not four!!!! Given the attention to detail of later Pixar films this is a travesty really.


220px-Cars_2006Number 10: Cars

Perhaps the most disliked of the Pixar oeuvre. This was the first Pixar film I didn’t bother to see in the cinema – it just sounded stupid. I saw it when visiting some relatives, and my 4 year old daughter at the time just loved it. I mean LOVED IT. Suddenly we had Lighting McQueen merchandise everywhere. And I have to admit the film is not horrible.

It has some nice parts and I do get involved in the story (and the movie-tie in computer game is excellent!). But you can’t get away from the fact that they are talking cars! This is the only Pixar film that exists in a made up reality. Hang on, I hear you say – what about.. well every single other one? Well all the other films are set in the human world – even Monsters Inc is linked to the human world. In Cars there are no humans, never have been, and never will be. This fact for me loses something important. I can imagine the world of Monsters Inc, or even Toy Story, but a world where cars have jobs, go to the toilet and need lawyers? Nup. A sequel out this year. I do not have great expectations.

Paul Newman is perfectly cast as the old racing car “Doc”, and the two Italian cars, Luigi and Guido are good comedic fun.

Verdict: Look nothing is really all that bad, but it’s just a bit… you know... why?

220px-WALL-EposterNumber 9: Wall. E

OK, this is obviously a travesty on my part. This film won an Oscar and has some wonderful animation – the character Wall. E was compared to Charlie Chaplin! The thing is, I just find the story boring. So humans have left earth and live on space ships not moving any muscles, and they have machines do everything for them. Well wonderful, but it was a tad laboured. Also none of the humans really connect with me. Wall.E and Eve’s romance is great – their dance scene is beautiful. But I am a dialogue man, and this just doesn’t have it for me.

Verdict: Love the robots, but the people are lifeless.

220px-RatatouillePoster2Number 8: Ratatouille

The story of a rat in Paris who is also a brilliant chef. Yes the story is slight, but the animation in this film is just heaven.

I also must admit that this is the Pixar film I have seen the least (because we only recently bought the DVD).

Directed by Brad Bird the scenes in the restaurant kitchen are just gorgeous to watch, and the story does have an emotional kick. My daughter didn’t want to get this one on DVD because the scene where the food critic, Anton Ego, tastes the ratatouille and is taken back to his childhood was too sad for her. This is a scene that lasts about a minute, has no dialogue, and yet it affected her deeply. It does me as well. Pixar films do that better than anyone.

Verdict: Beautiful beyond words, but the human characters lag behind that of the rats – we don’t really care too much about Alfredo and Collette’s romance.

220px-Movie_poster_monsters_inc_2Number 7: Monsters Inc

A great idea – monsters coming out from the cupboards – from another dimension (the monster world) – in order to collect the screams of kids to use as energy. The “scream shortage” aspect of the story was again a bit laboured (Pixar do best when they stay away from political messages), but the voice cast is brilliant. John Goodman and Billy Crystal perfectly match their characters Sully and Mike – Crystal is a basically an eye, how can an eye look like a person? And yet amazingly it seems like it is Billy Crystal. And Steve Buscemi is a great bad monster, Randall.

Some of the animation, such as when Sully and Mike are chasing Randall on the doors is breathtaking. But the story? Again – getting a scare quota? Meh, who cares really. We mostly care about Sully and the human girl, Boo – the monsters’ world is great, but only in the way it is connected to our world. 

Is it too scary for young kids? Well yeah – it took my daughter till she was seven before she felt she could cope with it. But she loves it now.

Verdict: It’s excellent, it just lacks that bit of real care for the monsters that we have for the toys in Toy Story

Up_PosterNumber 6: Up

An old man, Carl, lifts his house up with a multitude of balloons and goes in search of his childhood dream place – Paradise Falls. Along the way comes Russell – a boy scout caught on the house when it took off. They find the falls and also find that Carl’s childhood hero, Charles Muntz, is a bit of a bastard.

Again, more gorgeous to look at than any film deserves to be, but I always find the story gets a bit dull once Carl and Russell meet Muntz.  Dogs piloting planes? Yes, Pixar, you can imagine us things that never were, but you still need to keep within the realms of the world in which you have created – and this is the real world, not a made up place like that of “Cars”.

But for all of that, I love it if only for the opening scenes with young Carl and his best friend Ellie. And even better is the depiction of Carl and Ellie’s marriage. If you are not crying at the end of it, go out and see a doctor, because you will likely find you no longer have a pulse.

Verdict: The real emotional oomph is at the start – it’s so good, that everything after struggles to match it.

Number 5:  Toy Story 220px-Movie_poster_toy_story

The first.  Thank God it was good. I write about it here – in which I suggest that it should have won Best Picture in 1995.

Verdict: Oh the dialogue!:

Woody: All right, that's enough! Look, we're all - *very* impressed with Andy's new toy.
Buzz: Toy?
Woody: T-O-Y, t-oy.
Buzz: Excuse me, I think the word you're searching for is "space ranger".
Woody: The word I'm searching for, I can't say, because there's preschool toys present.

Buzz: You are a sad strange little man. I pity you. Farewell.

Number 4: Toy Story 2220px-Movie_poster_toy_story_2

They did the impossible – they improved on the original. Sending the toys on an adventure to save Woody was a brilliant way to break the confines of the the bedroom. Even better though was the story that Woody actually doesn't want to be saved. Some great laughs, excellent jokes, wonderful imagination, and amazing heart.

Pixar films aren’t known for their songs as are the old Disney films, but “When She Loved Me” sung by Sarah McLachlan is an absolute gem. How in the hell it lost to Phil Collins “You’ll Be in My Heart” (from Tarzan) I’ll never know – and no, you’re not alone, I couldn't hum a bar of it either, but “When She Loved Me”? – I’m tearing up just thinking of it.  

Verdict: best sequel since The Godfather II.

Number 3: The Incredibles

220px-TiposterBrad Bird’s first Pixar film is a brilliant adult delight. It may be loved by kids, but this one really is about adults. Bob Parr (otherwise known as Mr Incredible) longs for the past when he was a somebody. From there the film goes where really no other Pixar film does – not surprising given it was first developed to be made by Warner Bros. Bob Parr’s wife for example thinks he is having an affair; we also see Bob working in an insurance firm – where the life of the cubicle worker is as brilliantly rendered as in the film Office Space. It even has Samuel L Jackson invoking some of his character from Pulp Fiction when he calmly asks to have a drink of water.

This ain’t kid stuff. But wow, do kids love it – maybe because it features two very fully rendered kids – Violet the shy teenage girl and Dash the boy who is more Bart Simpson than any Pixar character has been.

Verdict: The film takes the super hero genre, kicks it around, turns it upside down, and has a lot of fun with it (“no capes!”).

Number 2: Finding Nemo 220px-Nemo-poster2

Prior to Toy Story 3, this was Pixar's most successful film at the box office, and it is not hard to see why. This is a film about a parent trying to save his child (who happens to be a fish), it doesn’t need to milk the emotion, the emotion is already there. But what makes Finding Nemo so magnificent is the main characters: Marlin the clown fish who isn’t funny, voiced by Albert Brooks is brilliantly uptight and Ellen DeGeneres steals the movie as Dory, the fish with short term memory loss. Together they are the perfect odd couple for us to accompany on this long adventure.

The animation is of course, amazing – the water actually looked like water – for fun watch The Little Mermaid after this, and laugh at how unreal the water looks in that 1989 film.

Maybe this film has more of an impact on me because my wife and I went to see it just after our first child was born, and we were both feeling incredibly connected to the story (in that over the top way that recently first time parents are connected to any parent-child stories.) My only quibble is the character of the the pelican voiced by Geoffrey Rush: it is not a pelican the likes ever seen in Australia – having grown up on the River Murray where pelicans are plentiful, I couldn’t believe they got it wrong.

One thing about this movie – my daughter has never seen the start – she always skips it as it is too upsetting for her. I am quite glad she does, as the death of Marlin’s wife Coral and most of their “babies” is pretty tough going – a brave start for a supposedly “kids’ film”, but Pixar are never scared to push boundaries.

Verdict: even the DVD menu dialogue is great:

Marlin: [introduction to the main menu of the first disc of the DVD] Where is it? Where is it?
[the menu appears]
Dory: Oh there's the menu, I knew it was around here somewhere.
Marlin: [beginning of menu loop; Marlin talks to the viewer at home] Okay, you've got a lot of choices here. You can watch just the movie *without* the commentary...
Dory: [interrupting] Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! I'm so excited! I've always wanted to see... "The Little Mermaid"!
Marlin: Good. Well this is "Finding Nemo".
Dory: Oh, well that sounds nice, too. Maybe we should watch *that* one.
Marlin: We're watching that one! This is "Finding Nemo"!
Dory: [sounding flattered] Oh you shouldn't have switched just for me!
Marlin: Unbelievable...
Dory: I've always wanted to be in a film.
Marlin: You were in a film. THIS one. "Finding Nemo"!
Dory: No way! I'd remember that.
Marlin: No you wouldn't...
Dory: Yes I would.
[excited inhalation sigh]
Dory: Being in a film would be so glamorous!
Marlin: [nonplussed] Really?
Dory: Oh my. Fabulous! Where's my trailer? I need water!
Marlin: Dory...
Dory: Fill my trailer with water!
Marlin: Something's wrong with you.

220px-Toy_story3_poster3-1-Number 1: Toy Story 3

There probably should be a rule on not allowing me to choose the most recent one, but bugger it. Toy Story 3 is without doubt the great 3rd film in a trilogy ever.


Everything is perfect, everything is true to the spirit of the series, and everything ends the series as it should. I haven’t seen it in 3D, and maybe that improved the emotion and wonder, but I can’t possibly see how, because it already has more emotion and impact than any other film I have seen for many a year.

How good are Pixar? [Spoiler follows] At the near end, when the toys are in the junkyard smelter and look like they are going to all be melted, I was sure that was what was going to happen. My brain was trying to tell me that this was a kid’s movie and there was no way in hell that Pixar would destroy Woody, Buzz and all the rest, and yet there it was – the toys looked at each other, held hands, accepted their fate and waited to die together. Here is a film about toys, and we see them waiting to die – and their deaths seemed inevitable and real. Achingly real – as real as the end of Peter Weir’s Gallipoli.  

I could not believe this was going to happen, and yet on one level it also felt like this was a way the film and series should end – toys do end up in the tip, and do end up melted down. It would have been horrible, and I would have ripped out the DVD and thrown it across the room, but Pixar treat their audience with such respect – they in effect treat them as adults – that such an adult ending seemed not only plausible, but also correct.

But thank God the toys don’t end up dying. Pixar may push boundaries, but they aren’t stupid! Woody, Buzz and the gang needed to end happily – they had earned this ending. And when they get their happy ending we get there with them, and rejoice. We know as well that, like Andy, we can leave them behind.

Verdict: Perfect.

So that is my ranking. It is of course my opinion, and is thus wrong or right depending on your own. For what it’s worth, here is the ranking by a much more discerning and knowledgeable critic than myself, my 7 year old daughter:

1. The Incredibles
2. Toy Story 3
3. Ratatouille
4. Monsters Inc.
5. Up
6. Wall. E
7. Toy Story 2
8. Cars
9. A Bug’s Life
10. Toy Story
11. Finding Nemo

Have a great weekend.