Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Christmas Blog 2014

Flowers in Martin Place - a sad end to a tough year.
If you take the cynical view, and many will, the Sydney Siege and its emotional aftermath could not have come at a better time for Tony Abbott and his shop-worn and slightly soiled government. On the very day that 'Diamond Joe' Hockey and Mathias 'The Lying Dutchman' Corman were forced to face the  MYEFO music and admit that;

(a) the budget had been an unmitigated disaster scorned and despised by all and sundry, with every divide and rule, tax the poor, ploy rumbled, and;

(b) the mining boom magic-money-pudding that had made the Howard years so easy to tout as economically responsible had finally run dry, and;

(c) this government would never, ever produce a budget surplus no matter how many terms it managed to lie its way into;

~ and suddenly the biggest end of year slap-down for any government in living memory became just a side-show next to the reality of a genuine 'Muslim-terrorist, Dog-Day-Afternoon, fear and loathing in Sunny Sydney' horror show. The siege, its innocent and heroic victims, its brutal and 'just as crazy as we thought these terrorist bastards were' protagonist; and the nauseatingly over-hyped television news coverage, became the setting for Tony 'trust me I really don't know what I'm doing' Abbott to look by turns, concerned, caring, fatherly and genuinely human.

He didn't manage to pull off Prime Ministerial, decisive, or penetratingly insightful, but then, he hasn't done since he got the job, and it's been a bloody long year with a lot of turbulence in what should have been clear political air. The opportunity now hangs in the air for Tony to become Mr. Safe-at-any-price, Authoritarian Asio-bloodhound, 'fight them on the beaches of Sydney', 'no more Mr Nice Guy' right wing demagogue of punitive measures for the disaffected leavened with a healthy dose of refugee bashing. And the worse things get in every other part of his government's remit, the harder to resist that temptation is going to be with the likes of Brandis, Cormann, Morrison and co beating the drum..

The nation's cosseted private sector media will only be too keen to lead, follow and cheer on the charge. Channel 9's post siege news positively gloried in the grief and misery, with an emoting blonde anchor pronouncing the grief of those who lost family members beyond any compare, before switching briefly to the murder of more than a hundred children by the Taliban in Pakistan to round out the A block intro at the top of the hour.

The carpet of flowers grows as thousands arrive to deliver them in person
Don't get me wrong here. I don't discount for a moment how genuine the pain of loss for a murdered family member is. Nor do I think that one person's grief is worth more than another's. But at 57 I'm relatively sanguine. I wept at the heroics of a young man who gave his life to save others, while the loss of the Pakistani children didn't touch me quite as much. Their distance lending a sad diminution of one man's emotional response in which I took refuge without shame. I know just how much my heart can and can't take.

Yet I am touched by the carpet of flowers that now covers most of Martin Place (and is still growing). That people are still coming in person to place their floral tribute displays not just grief and sadness but the warmth, generosity and open-hearted fellow feeling that is the best part of the Australian national character. That and their honest willingness to act on what they feel. And I am cheered to be a part of that. The #Illridewithyou campaign begun on Twitter shows not just how generous and open-hearted Aussies can be, but just how smart, insightful and able to sort emotion from reality. Our young can clearly discern and act on truth in ways that clearly baffle some of our politicians.

Stephanie Speirs organised 1,000 #Illridewithyou badges to give to commuters
But all three commercial TV stations are guilty of telling us how to think, feel and react to every tiny nuance of pain, grief, horror and shock in ways that went far beyond the normal realms of yellow journalism. Perhaps from habit as much as ignorance they hype up the faux-emotional at the expense of the real. They narrow the human response to banal phrases that don't ring true, just familiar. They distort for banal effect and in doing so betray the genuine feelings and thoughts of those involved. Straight reporting took second place to the values of fear-mongering, sensation-seeking and emotional manipulation that underpin the trite 'current affairs' shows that follow the news, and inform the shock-jock blame-a-thons that will surely follow on radio in the weeks and months ahead. I hope I'm wrong. But I doubt it.

The Telegraph - always first with sensationalist fiction.
My concern, however, and surprisingly, is for Tony Abbott. All year he's removed one foot from his mouth only to kick himself firmly in the teeth with the other when his tried and tested political skills were seen through so easily and consistently by so many. It appears that Generations X, Y and Whoever's Next take it personally when lied to so obviously, and in such clear, declarative pre-election promises. That and the endless series of rabid hard-right economic kickings handed out to the non-rich section of Team 'Straya has not worked the way it once used to. Cynical Baby-Boomers may not have been surprised, even if they were outraged. But the young are apparently made of more idealistic stuff, and less inclined to forgive and forget within the time-frame of a first-term government whose credibility before any election can only ever be zero from here on in. 

But, be that as it may, I had thought I'd seen in Tony Abbott a certain stirring of thought, of reflection on how badly things have gone, and in particular on how 'new, caring, soft-spoken Uncle Tony' had failed to earn any warmth from the punters. It looked from the cheap seats that Tony had planned to be John Howard redux - the concerned paterfamilias PM who sat above the fray and seemingly above party politics allowing his ministers their head and only stepping in to curb their honest zeal with a wiser restraining hand when enough voters got shirty.

The problem that won't go away, even if Tony goes away.

In reality it's just an old dog-and-pony show; let the Ministers fly the kites and if all goes well let them run with it, and step in to cut the ribbon when all's done. Or shut things down if the kite crashes and burns. But it seems Tony believed in it. And finding out this year that:

(a) if you lie so egregiously you don't get the benefit of the doubt when you say 'trust me with the details', and;

(b) people really loved that sod Whitlam and every socialist thing he did that sort of 'worked' and gave people a better standard of living, and;

(c) people really do notice when you manage to slide a $1 billion worth of funding for the Catholic Church into an 'austerity budget', and;

(d) if you really don't care about economics enough to pay attention, and just let the Huns ride roughshod over the budget, well damnit, people blame you for it anyway!

It all kind of took the shine off getting the Big Job which was what you wanted in the first place. And then there was that few days in early December when Tony appeared to be taking all this in, and genuinely trying to rethink things. I actually felt for him, which surprised me no end. Not sorry for him, more fascinated in the way that watching a Labrador trying to understand pockets is.

For a while I thought he might actually spend Christmas trying to re-imagine himself as PM - not so much 'Father Tony the political priest' any more, and well, something maybe that was what he actually could be if he stopped being Mr Knuckle-Sandwich from sheer force of habit. Perhaps there were some glimmers of a genuine attempt to learn on the job and adapt to a new century, a new demographic picture of Team Oz, a new ..

Well, it really doesn't matter now. The siege, the posturing, the playing the role of Chief Wreath Layer and uttering the Warm, Caring Pre-Programmed Phrases at every camera in the land may have banished that moment forever. And soon we'll get the inquiries and the security ramp-ups and the blame giving and more right-wing politics as usual. 

 Which is a pity.

One-term Tony. 

Is all I want for Christmas, 2016.

Oh, and peace on Earth. Every year. 

Or at least some signs that the Angels Of Our Better Nature are on duty.

So, Merry Christmas. Hug your loved ones. Cherish your children. 

Take time for your own happiness amid the stress of it all. 

It's been a really tough year with too many good people lost.

With love, AofM

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Back to the Barricades …

.. or, The Hidden Dangers Of Nostalgia ..

Sometimes it's not a revolution.
Sometimes it's just trying to protect what you have.
There is, in Brisbane, a feisty, articulate, well-read, witty and passionate young Union Organiser. She works for the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, (MEAA) - the union formed from the amalgamation of the old AJA (Australian Journalists Association) and Actors Equity. She is an outspoken feminist, principled leftist and budding word-smith. Indeed "the force is strong in this one". She will be the primary union official on the latest 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movie due to be filmed in Queensland next year. She is also my youngest daughter.

The reason I mention her is that I've just watched Gough Whitlam's state funeral, and was reminded that without Gough this young lady would not exist. That's not to say that he had any personal connection with her conception. Only that until Gough abolished conscription in '72 my family would not have immigrated to Australia. As my father bluntly put it, "I'm not raising sons to be cannon-fodder in someone else's war." And without me, no she.

Flight Lieutenant Edward Gough Whitlam served as a navigator
with No. 13 Squadron RAAF, flying in Lockheed Ventura bombers.
Still she's Gough's creation in many ways. The daughter of two immigrants, one English, one German; both families economic migrants from post war Europe. Both families refugees from economic stagnation, ancient tribal enmities, entrenched privilege and ugly, rigid class-systems; from boom and bust economies that serve capital over people and from a continent that's been either a battleground or a breeding ground for war for century after century. 

She's the daughter of hope, optimistic endeavour and reformist politics. And, like her sisters, she was raised in full knowledge of her rights and freedoms in our liberal social democracy, and takes it at as read that they come with the responsibility to champion those same rights and freedoms rights for everyone without discrimination.

Gough prepares for a hectic parliamentary session.
I'm pointedly aware of this because it reminds me of an interview with Gough I did for an obscure magazine on public policy in 1994, a highlight of my brief journalistic career, and one in which we agreed to disagree on a fairly fundamental issue. I remember it very clearly, in part because, sadly, after all these years it appears that I was right and Gough was wrong.

The topic was a Bill of Rights for Australia, something I believed was needed to entrench basic rights to free speech, freedom of conscience, rights to self-determination and personal habeas corpus, and freedom of assembly and association. Gough was quite clear this was both unnecessary, and politically unlikely to be achievable. Instead he championed our international obligations to the UN's Declaration of Human Rights and all the charters and agreements that flow from it. That was our protection, he said. That's what guarantees our rights and limits the behaviour of governments both state and federal. 

How could he know that the current government would stoop so low as to excise from the Migration Act all references to the UN Refugees Convention replacing them with a uniquely Australian set of interpretations that ask, for example: 

"Could this 'illegal/refugee/foreigner' modify his behaviour a bit, you know, and be less irritating, and therefore not be tortured by people when we send him back to, you know, who cares where?" 

I kid you not. 

The dangers of nostalgia…

Edward Gough Whitlam 1916 ~ 2014

Australia's greatest Prime Minister
In his contribution today to Gough's eulogy the brilliant Graham Freudenberg said: 

"You would go to the barricades with such a man." 

Which was and is true. But this is not the time for nostalgia about the heroic age of the Labor Party, or the Whitlam era of social advancement, a nineteen-seventies that was Australia's decade late (as usual) contribution tho the nineteen-sixties of Selma, Alabama, Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" and the Prague Spring and Paris revolts of '68.

Those barricades are still there, and the swing to the right in Australian politics in the last two years means every issue which Gough fought for, and the changes he instigated, are all under threat from the Abbott Government and the passive, flaccid, tacit agreement of the right wing of the ALP which dominates the party federally.

Current labor Leader Bill Shorten rises to the call to arms.
It's in this kind of environment that people write idiotic articles suggesting that unspecified 'problems' with democracy can be solved by taking the messy 'people actually voting' out of the equation.  

These are the times in which we live.

This is the ├╝bermenschlich 'Devil take the hindmost' zeitgeist that we face.

A example of this, currently being taken up by MEAA, is the threat of 10 years jail for any journalist falling foul of the new security laws being thrust through parliament by the ever-reasonable, and ever-sensible-to-nuance Attorney-General George Brandis. Senator AG-GB has stated categorically that no "journalist would ever be prosecuted for doing their job". But as the ABC's Media Watch reported, experienced journalists and lawyers do not agree. The Foreign Fighters Bill carries such blanket wording relating to journalists responsibility and culpability that you could drive a News Ltd truck, or Police paddy wagon through it. 

And who really believes that this government, so keen on secrecy, autocracy and belligerent, parochial nationalism would eschew the opportunity to trample on free speech, free reportage, peaceful protest or anyone unwise enough to cross them, by say, leaking unhelpful details to asylum seekers? How on earth, given the last Abbott election campaign and its denouement of bland, shoulder-shrugging brass neck?

Tony Abbott ~ What can you say?
"We lied, what can I say? You were silly enough to believe us. You should've known we were lying. So it's your own fault. And anyway it's too late now. Oh, and, just remember to believe our next campaign, whenever that is. 'Cos that will be true. All of it. Trust me. After all, would I lie about something like that? Again, that is? Doesn't make sense does it? So, just bugger off for now, OK? I'll dog-whistle when I want you."

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Slaying the Fatted Cash-Cow

One of the unforeseen benefits of growing older, balancing receding hair, multiple mysterious aches and pains, and creeping conservatism is the occasional delight of having one's prejudices 'opinions informed by the wisdom of experience' validated. On rare and precious occasions this combines with the unadulterated delight of watching people be every bit as stupid as you always suspected they were. It's a particular form of schadenfreude gifted to the grumpy old bastards wise and experienced among us allowing we few, we old and knackered few, to smile and say to ourselves, 

"Oh God. I know exactly how that particular piece of idiocy came about."

Well this week I had one of those perfect moments, one so sublime I actually burst out laughing, and have been cackling chuckling about it for days (but not in a disturbed or insane-y way). 

It arose out of a recent dinner-table conversation with friends when I vouchsafed that economics was an entirely ridiculous and misconceived venture given that people are stupid, annoying, irrational creatures, and most decisions in business aren't made logically or even remotely in the best economic interests of the company. At the time I couldn't come up with a single example to back up my pompous, extravagant, dazzling claim, insight. Until last Tuesday, when the perfect illustration dropped into my breakfast trough plate.

Not a morning person.
I'm not a morning person. When I rise at the crack of noon for breakfast I am often hungover, not at my best. On brighter days my keeper, fellow inmate, beloved spouse will hand me a pair of mirrored sunglasses to stave off the sun's savagery until I've had my two pints of coffee and seven, two, four slices of toast. Any change or variation on this palsied routine is to be shunned as one would a rabid dog. I need consistent, predictable routine; caffeine, nourishment and silence. If all goes well I can grunt, fart, construct a sentence converse amiably with my wife on any number of urbane topics within hours, minutes.

Imagine my horror, then, when on several consecutive days I found my toast routine failing me. The butter, or rather, the 'Devondale Dairy Soft' kept falling off the knife before I could reach the plate. Worse still, when I had abandoned smearing everywhere, scraping up, cleaning up the dropped 'butter' and moved the plate closer to the butter container it melted so fast it ran off the edge of the toast and onto my trousers, iPad, fingers! I was bewildered, confused, appalled! Manfully, within hours, minutes I chose to investigate and discovered that the Devondale people had changed their product. 

As the lid now shouted it was: "NOW MORE SPREADABLE".

It was a situation that called for immediate action. So, two days later, I crafted an email in my best 'Angry of Mayfair' grumpy old bugger buffer style. I pointed out that I had been using their, bloody, damn, fine product for over twenty years, and given a reasonable life-span I had planned to use it for another thirty. I even went so far as to calculate how much cash they would lose ($4.70 x 52 weeks x 30 years = $7332) as a result. It's these little details that convey just how bonkers, loopy, potential stalker, concerned one is. The salient point, however, was this:

"Why take a mature product with a solid consumer base and steady sales and mess around with it? If you wanted to bring a new product in to the mix, fine. But don't wreck your own product for no good reason. That's just madness.."

Having ranted incoherently, had my hissy-fit, got the fuck over it, unburdened myself I cheerfully whizzed the missive off to the land of wherever this stuff comes from. I thought that would be an end to the matter. But to my surprise, Devondale's "Quality Manager Domestic Retail" sent me a reply. I reproduce it here, with slight annotations to make it bleeding obvious, underline the flaws in their thinking:

"Re: Changes to Dairy Soft.

In response to consumer demand for a more spreadable Dairy Soft, we recently improved our Dairy Soft butter blend."

  • Translation: We ran some focus groups to justify our existence, and talked Management into stuffing around with one of our best cash cows. We called it 'improving' it.
"We worked hard to find a way to churn the butter to make a softer, more spreadable product without having to change any of the ingredients."

  • We spent a lot of time and money on this. An absolute bloody fortune, and months of everyone's time. But the PowerPoint presentation went over great with the bosses and convinced everyone it was a winner. We just knew it would be a terrific success. Yay, us!
"Most importantly, we made sure we did not compromise the taste of Dairy Soft, which we know is the best tasting butter blend around. However, not everyone has enjoyed the new, more spreadable Dairy Soft."

  • Oh shit, it's a disaster! They hate it! The ungrateful bastards hate it! We've been buried in stupid complaints and loony phone calls from old farts and angry mums, and the sales figures are in the crapper! Oh God, I'll be lucky to keep my job and my career will be stalled for years, bloody years! Aaagh!..
"So we have listened. Dairy Soft will return to being made the way it has always been made. This change will be made immediately, and will be available in supermarkets in mid-November."

  • Oh God! Oh God! Oh God! Please let the sales figures come back! Please let the sales figures come back! Please let the sales figures come back!.. 
"Thank you for your feedback and for supporting Devondale, the Aussie Farmer Co-Op.

Yours faithfully,

           Xxxxx Xxxx , Quality Manager Domestic Retail."

Sadly, this is how businesses all over the world operate. When Coca-Cola brought out New Coke in 1985, changing the taste and substituting high-fructose corn syrup for cane sugar it cost them a fortune in marketing and 'research' and generated the biggest consumer backlash in history. It was the Edsel of the beverage industry. It cost Coke's management even more money to publicly rationalise their mistake. And this goes on all the time. And when people aren't completely ballsing up their jobs they're making completely irrational choices about what to buy, what to eat, and how to spend their money.

Perfectly normal. Perfectly.
People buy and sell stock portfolios based on a mixture of greed, fear and what their astrologer told them. They choose a new car based on their lucky colour. They make life-changing decisions on a hunch or a coin toss. They move to a new town, or stay where they are, because their psychic said it was right for them. They spend $ thousands on medicine for a pet, and ignore a starving homeless man on the way to the vet. They vote for the candidate with the nicest hair, or because the other one looks like a relative they can't stand. They even keep changing the packaging on a product for some damn fool reason and have me wandering in the damn dairy aisle looking confused all the damn time.

An intuition, or indigestion misunderstood as a gut-feeling is just as likely to sway a decision as logic, facts, the weather or the time of day. We are largely irrational creatures with a breathtaking capacity for rationalising our weirdest behaviour. Which is just as well. It's what makes us interesting, worth knowing, worth caring about. Worth loving.

Adam Smith's Invisible Hand of The Market is a complete fantasy, subscribed to only by those who need to feel secure in a confusing and chaotic world. It takes the irrational behaviour and decisions people make and irons out the human wrinkles until all that's left are graphs and statistics. Nice, safe, clean graphs and projections and statistics. And PowerPoint presentations, lots and lots of PowerPoint presentations.

"Oh my God we're out of bread!"