Where the hell did that Heathen Scripture guy go?

It’s a fair question. Last year I was punching out articles and raging against the dying of the light. This year, a quiet has largely settled over my corner of the internet. But what kind of quiet? The kind where I decided I hated everyone and retreated to a rustic mountain cabin to grow my own tomatoes in a beehive and teach my dog to pump clear cold water from the stream? The kind where I stared too long at an enchanted painting, so that one distant day, someone will notice my tiny silent grimace among the oil-pastel throng? The kind where I’m waiting in a cupboard with a vacuum-cleaner pipe for someone to come looking? The kind where I choked on a corn chip, leaving my nine cats locked inside the house to eat my face, and giving a poignant reminder to all when I’m eventually found that I was alone, just so alone? What gives?

Well, none of the above. Nor have I retired from public comment after a hefty six-month career. But I have been busy doing other things, and I have been holding back from the Scripture a little. People who get immersed in politics can start to take that shit way too seriously in a very short time. They take themselves way too seriously into the bargain. They treat five hours of Twitter commentary like an event of substance. From where my father is currently working in the States, he reminded me the other day that no-one there has ever heard of Tony Abbott. That’s worth bearing in mind. It’s also good to remember that not every debate demands your personal contribution, and not every idea you have needs to be seen through. Whether it’s the self-importance brought on by having any kind of audience, or the depression induced by realising what a spectacular clusterfuck our national situation is, politics can eat you away from the inside like a hydrofluoric enema.

Here, then, are the things I’ve been doing instead.

First, working with other kinds of writing. For a while now I’ve been editor at a joint
called Going Down Swinging. We make books, audio CDs, sweet digital inventions, and put on performances. I like these things. Reading stories that go in strange and lovely directions; reading long-form essays that have nothing to do with the news cycle. Our book/CD package last year looked like this:

and I love it dearly. (That photo is a bit washed out, the colours are even nicer really.) I’m perhaps proudest of the CD – in a world where so much performance work is admittedly awful, I would challenge anyone to listen to this disc and not get some real enjoyment out of it.

Last year, I loved getting Neil Gaiman’s work into our collection; I loved previewing part of Pat Grant’s graphic masterpiece Blue, which has just been released to great acclaim; I loved putting together a collection of writing and artwork that really sings together. And this year, there has been great enjoyment in assembling what is to come.

In September there’ll be a new book and a new CD which will be spectacular. At the start of June we’ll be launching a beautifully redesigned website which will be filled from then on with writing, video, audio, and image. Much more digital content will start to become available online, for tablets, and for e-book readers. These are exciting times.

GDS is one of those chronically under-funded arts organisations, though it is rare in having survived into its 33rd year. If you want to support it, the best thing you can do is buy a copy, or a subscription. It’s cheaper than a round of drinks, and it’ll give you much more lasting pleasure. Garn.

Another thing I’ve taken on is co-directing the National Young Writers Festival, which has run in Newcastle since 1998, most of that time as part of the multi-festival This Is Not Art. I’d been going to TiNA religiously for six years, so it seemed about time to chip in. I’ve even got a half-finished story about it that I might post here if I finally knock it off. TiNA is great because a few thousand random artists descend on Newcastle for a weekend. The town gets a real buzz about it, equal parts intrigue and hostility. There are workshops, panels, discussions, readings, fun and serious. And because only the locals can actually go home once each day, it basically turns into a four-day party. Smart times during daylight, stupidity in the evenings. Thoroughly recommended as a good holiday, no matter how old you are.

My sportswriting has also expanded to include weekly radio segments – Monday breakfast at 8.15 on RRR in Melbourne, Thursday evenings around 8:30 on ABC 702 in Sydney. I filled in for RRR’s full breakfast show for a couple of weeks over summer. Another nice radio thing was Radio National getting me involved in their Valentine’s Day love poetry series, which was apparently a great success. You can hear all the poems here. It felt a bit strange to be among people like my satirical hero John Clarke, as well as Peter Singer, Michael Kirby, Sarah Blasko, Father Bob, Kathy Lette, David Williamson, and Clover Moore. Then there was the fact that the ABC asked all of those people to record their favourite love poem by someone else, but asked me to record one of my own. I didn’t know this until the program went live. So amid all these eminent people paying tribute to Chaucer or Shakespeare, there’s me paying tribute to… me. Awkward, though some were probably unsurprised.

The last excellent thing for the moment is called the 24 Hour Book Project. It’s pretty fucking self-explanatory. In June I get together with some excellent writers like Nick Earls, Krissy Kneen, Steven Amsterdam and Chris Currie, to write an entire book in 24 hours in Brisbane. Apparently we live-blog bits of what we’re doing, and have a day to pull it all together. An entire book, run through an editing team, running through the night, against the clock, literary Jack Bauer style. I tell you I am looking forward to it. Especially the split-screen bits where it zooms in on me staring blankly at a laptop.

The calibre of people involved in this means it’s actually really exciting rather than daunting. I’m especially pleased to be working with Nick Earls, who was one of my adolescent writing heroes. At perhaps 16, times were hard. Hormones were high. Outlets were scarce. I was an impossibly awkward teenager – funny, but never confident, ever the wacky sidekick. (I have a story about it on YouTube.) I had never even managed to kiss a girl, and was growing distinctly pessimistic about that opportunity ever arising. I felt young and strong and ready, but hemmed in by adults, constantly frustrated in any attempt to do anything. It was a pretty depressing time.

Nick’s book Zigzag Street made me feel a whole lot better. It helped that I lived on Zig Zag Road – immediate identification there. I picked up the book after my sister had left it on the table. “A laugh-out-loud book,” the cover said. Never one to be told what to do by anyone, especially lowly copywriters, my sister declared “It didn’t make ME laugh out loud, not even once!” before flouncing off to her room. In the spirit of wanting to explore any possibility of my sister being wrong, and also in the spirit of not having anything like, say, a girlfriend to go and hang out with, I started reading. I dropped right into the middle and got stuck. I read through to the end, then went back to the beginning, then right through to the end again. It was well into the evening when I began, and I read through until four in the morning, until the book was well and truly done. And you know what? I laughed. Out loud. A lot. Late into the night and echoing off the kitchen slate, sometimes until tears came.

Because finally – finally, in sweet relief – that book made me feel better about things. The main character (Richard?) was something like 28 years old. He was frustrated with life. He felt like he was being kept from achieving things. He was lovely and kind and likeable, but utterly hopeless with girls. He had a lot of time in his life for masturbation. These were all things that I imagined guys grew out of at an early age, in which pursuit everyone else was well ahead of me. Then suddenly I was being told, no. It’s not like that. It doesn’t necessarily get any easier. And rather than being a depressing prediction about where we might all end up, it was a message of heartening solidarity.

It’s ok, said Richard. There are so many others out there like you, like me. It’s how things are. So much of Richard’s life involved extreme embarrassment, hilarious mishap, in the same exaggerated form that we always imagine our own humiliation takes. But of course in the end, Richard is found (via the most absurdly hilarious embarrassment) by a girl who sees through his fumbling awkwardness, and finds the lovely guy within. This is possible, said Zig Zag Street. This is what happens to guys like you. Just be patient.

As it turned out (see that YouTube story again), he was eventually right. And though I couldn’t be certain that he would be right, I still went to bed that night feeling like a lot more things were possible, and I’m not sure that a little bit of that feeling hasn’t stayed with me ever since.

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Just because it’s free… (the worst CDs from the storeroom of doom)

My first gainful employment putting words down on a page was as a music writer. Like most writing gigs, it started out with doing things for free. When it comes to free work, reviewing is the best option. Aside from the intangible notions of experience and opportunity that will be cited (sometimes genuinely) by anyone who wants your work for nothing, at least reviewing means that you generally get to have the thing being reviewed. If you’re reviewing a restaurant, someone has to give you a feed. A friend who works in tech assessment has a different smartphone any time I see him. Music writing, as long as you can pick your assignments, lets you go to concerts you were too broke to attend, and you can often take someone you like into the bargain. For what it’s worth, reviewing albums helps you expand your CD collection, though as the years have gone by, that has begun to seem more con than pro.

In my state of student poverty a few years ago, these perks were enough to start me writing for a free online mag, the now-defunct ultra-indie site Wireless Bollinger. Aside from expecting it to vanish at any moment under the weight of a single legal letter from a certain champagne manufacturer, I found I was an unnatural fit in a stable of writers who would jizz down their legs in perfect synchronicity if Thom Yorke farted into a dictaphone. The Album of the Year writers’ poll was an annual foregone conclusion, because surely Radiohead had at least released an instrumental mp3 under a fake name on an obscure Russian torrent server, and of course that counted because THEY ARE GENIUS DAMMIT. There was also constant conflict regarding taxonomy and category: no, we can’t cover The Rapture because they aren’t ‘indie’ music, but next week we’re going to send you to Cut Copy and ask you to review the new Chemical Brothers record. The last straw came after a couple of years of being told not to mention any of the hip-hop acts while reviewing major music festivals, when I booted up the computer to find Kanye in our best album list. Because… well, Pitchfork did it…

I like Kanye as much as the next white guy, but still – fuck that shit.

Amazingly, despite barely posting any new content in the last year of its life, the site was eventually sold as a going concern to a new group of guys who were dead keen to take it over. They came bustling in, made their announcements, emailed everyone to say that they assumed we’d keep working for free, and enthusiastically ignored the replies asking how exactly they proposed to resolve the various and substantial problems of the site’s previous incarnation. Four months later, the entire site had gone dark. The domain name now dead-ends at a 404, and the hacked Twitter account is just iPad spam and tumbleweeds. A salutary lesson for anyone who thinks that data is somehow more durable than print. Check some papryrus, bitches.

Well before the whimpering end had come for Wireless Bollinger, though, I had also branched out into (minimally) paid reviewing for more mainstream outlets. Citysearch was a frequent option, which then syndicated out to MTV. As a person with what was then a deep antipathy toward pop music (the transformation of which I’ve laid bare in ‘Lady Gaga destroys Neo Tokyo‘), it was discombobulating to see my name below an MTV logo and above a discussion of Flo Rida. For those who imagine that there are riches and glamour involved with the world’s most recognisable pop brand, I can see you and raise you the $30 that I received per album review. MTV Online Australasia does not equate to getting stage-side at the VMA’s while Kanye intercepts Taylor Swift. Nonetheless, it was money that nudged me over the edge of a weekly personal budget deficit, so I persisted.

Which brings me to the very simple original point of this post, which was not in fact a discussion of my freelance employment history. The thing is, when you write reviews, you get a whole shitload of CDs. People give you CDs, people send them to you. The publications you write for send them too, not just the discs you’re writing about, but extras from the massive piles that they receive and don’t want to write about. Ever notice street presses trying to sound generous by running competitions to win 100 mystery CDs? Yeah, those specially selected gift packs are really just the result of shovelling a bucket through the drift of audio crud that has backed up in their office. It’s less about promotion than it is just getting shit out of the way.

Apparently the same trick is expected to work on their writers, though those same writers well and truly know the score. Random extras find their way into your review parcels as ‘bonuses’. Any visit to the office of a street press will usually end with someone pressing jewel cases into your hands. “Take them, please,” they smile, while their eyes grow wide and slightly desperate, and you think you hear “just fucking take them” added under their breath.

The net result is that I ended up with far too many CDs to ever listen to, and a large number that should never be listened to. They all ended up in a giant box in a storeroom. Last week, in the interests of getting my life in order, I decided to clear out that box. The results were varied and hilarious, and I want to share some of them with you.

EcoZen: a musical awakening. For people who loved India because life there is just so much more real, man. 

“Beyond mere chill-out, here’s where the ambient revolution begins.” STRAP YOURSELVES IN. WE’RE GOING BEYOND CHILL-OUT. I imagine this to be a really relaxed Mad Max film, where two warriors compete to see who can best roll around in a pile of people on some mattresses on the floor of a filthy nightclub while inhaling Medic fumes off a kawaii stuffed-animal backpack. Can I just raise a semantic point here? If chill-out is a point of aspiration, then surely going beyond chill-out implies you will be doing what chill-out does, only more so? Which is to say, being more chilled out? Less active? More comatose? Is that why we have to strap ourselves in? So we don’t slump unconsciously out of our chairs and shatter our front teeth on the coffee table?

Sorry, but a more intense version of chill-out makes as much sense as a hardcore butterfly kiss or a savage beating with soft cheese.

Cornlicker. This band make the list because their name is Cornlicker, and they apparently feature a man with a machine-penis putting it in a hole. That and the fact that they photocopied their EP cover onto nice red paper. I liked that.

Given that this is an EP in a plastic sleeve, someone probably gave it to me personally. Which means I probably know someone in this band, or at least know someone who knows them. Which means there’s a good chance they’ll see this, and might bring it up, and there’ll be that awkward moment when they’ll bring it up, unsure about whether I was really insulting them or just kind of taking the piss.

I guess I’ll say: Dude. Your band was called Cornlicker. To be fair, it does sounds like a Tennessee sex crime.

Faux-hobo bluesman track names are below.

1. You won’t hold me back
2. Hair of the dog
3. Prime motivation
4. Quicksand
5. I know what’s right for you
6. Ball and chain
7. Memory is the enemy
8. Some kinda luck
9. Another dollar
10. Bright lights / Big city

Go Cornlicker.

Yeah, this isn’t exactly a shitty low-profile band, and I thought the Pumpkins put on a rad show last time they toured Australia. But still. This later-era record, after Billy recruited some high-school kids to play Darcy and James, is just that fucking awful. It really is. And it’s called Zeitgeist. I guess Synergy and Optimise had already been trademarked by juice companies.

Hard to go past a record with tracks called ‘Reflections’, ‘Shaman’s Dream’, and ‘The Naiades of the Purple Lake.’

Hahaha, remember back in the days when blackface was funny? Like on Hey Hey in the 80s? Yeah, those were some good times. So this must be an album from… wait, they didn’t do CDs in the 80s. Ok, 90s then? Some hangover?

Nope. This CD is from the end of 2007. Even Sam Newman’s final foray with the boot polish was back in 1999.

Here are some call synopses from another Tilley masterpiece:

3. Indian Holiday Disaster
Melanie Gault was leaving her job managing a travel agency and wanted to leave her replacement Sam Marshall with a very special customer… who was figuratively and literally a little “dark”.

4. Vasectomy
Karen Harman is a colleague of Nik Embury who had just had a vasectomy. She figured everyone at work could join in the fun as he snuck off to discover just how far the truth (and his scrotum!) could be stretched.

8. Doggy Style
Deep down every man likes to think he could make a woman bark like a dog. Bruno Preiato is no exception but being slightly prudish, he wondered if the job could be done for him on his friend Selina Camilleri.

14. Black Booty
“Irene” and “Connie” have been placed in the witness protection program. This is what happens when two girlfriends turn on each other just to find out if the other has been with a black man. Wearing a false beard will no doubt decrease their chances of a repeat offence with ANY man.

Aside from rolling on the floor at the suggestion that all black men have enormous penises (classic!), I did wonder whether the description of Selina in relation to Bruno should be less ‘friend’, more ‘colleague who he wasn’t brave enough to sexually harass himself.’ Goldmine, nonetheless. Some comedians are so intimidating in their genius that I never want to make another joke again.

Tilley’s isn’t the best disc I found though. No, that’s another one in the category of things that white dudes should stay away from.

In case you missed that, that’s Psychedelic Didgeridoo. A genre sorely lacking from our musical scope, filled in one brave movement by Elohims Child (he’s reducing his carbon footprint by cutting down on apostrophes). The production values, too, are breathtaking – I’ve photographed the interior for you below. Note the colour transposition from cover image to disc, and note the amazing track names.

Timecrusadiers. (Yes, Crusadiers. They’re a thing.)
Lightwaves Remixed.

Why is Timecrusadiers not the track on everyone’s lips, being covered by Walk Off the Earth in a YouTube sensation? It’s the disillusionment of injustices like this that drove me out of the music writing business and into the kinder world of politics.

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The last few nights, we’ve had those beautiful late-March evenings you get in Melbourne. So many in fact that the last one has draped over onto the first day of April. Those nights where it’s like summer has forgotten that it was supposed to be over, and come wandering back into the party half an hour after it left to catch a cab. It’s dishevelled, and there are sticks in its hair and a piece of plastic wrap stuck to the bottom of one shoe, and you don’t ask where it’s been, but it wanders round the kitchen to fix itself another drink from the dregs of bottles scattered on the bench, something with warm soda instead of tonic, and a partly-chewed lime wedge dropped in, and summer drinks it leaning against the kitchen washboard, chatting with a vague slur for another seven minutes, before regathering its senses enough to attempt again its exit.

Every year, without fail, everyone acts surprised, and goes on about the unpredictability of Melbourne weather. Every year, without fail, the same pattern recurs. This is in accordance with our practice of pretending that we are some sort of hardcore weather warriors, battling an anomalous climate, as though conditions don’t change sharply in Chicago or the Russian steppes. “Melbourne weather,” we cluck, a phrase with so much intuited meaning as to require no further utterance, never aware that Sydney has twice the rainfall in any given year.

No matter. These nights are a gift to us by a city whose virtue could be more appreciated. The air is gentle and the trees still have their leaves. There’s a softness to the evening, as though atmospheric fabric conditioner had been added to the wash. When I first fell in love, a long decade and more ago now, it was one of those late March nights. I was a recent refugee from adolescence. When it started I thought that everything had changed; when it ended I thought that life could never move on. It had, and it did. Some years later I met another girl on another late March night, in the midst of a minor Melbourne disaster whose memory might soon be jarred free. We passed a few weeks in that company, until the world turned another turn, and I wrote this poem.

If you’ve enjoyed these last few nights in Melbourne, it’s for you.


That night tasted like grapefruit; we were
hallway silhouettes. Some hours earlier, drops


had started pocking Victoria’s state-wide parch
softening the cracked lips of reservoirs.


It was summer’s last convulsion. The heavy energy of heat
curled round us and over, even as the rains came in.


There’d been a crash in the Burnley Tunnel: explosions,
calamity. With power to the whole northern grid failing


we sat in darkness – streetlights doused, houses
thinking themselves over at the edge of vision –


watching four blind lanes of Royal Parade
snakehiss with traffic, water sheeting the roadway,


tyres unable to decide if they were planes or scythes.
Our shoebox veranda made a diorama,


a comfort to those out in the world.
With the familiarity born of shared disaster


passers-by stopped to tell us of chaos in the city:
traffic lights out, cars dismantling each other,


man undone by invention one more time.
How long has it been out up here? they’d ask.


At twelve I said I’d walk home when the rain stopped.
Cars thinned out but never ceased


though at least no more cyclist lights
scrived their laser scrimshaw in our skulls.


Veranda edges circumscribed the sky, the iron lacework
boxed it up like Chinese takeaway.


Beyond the swoop of the Parade was space
and space and space. That dirty couch was a canoe,


the road a roiling mud monsoonal river, mile-wide.
We rode the current, waiting for a break in rain


that never came; let it ride the way things ride
on nights that taste like grapefruit.


Morning was a nudge in the ribs: the clouds’ campaign
from black to ash to oyster-shell.


Water still hissed through our streets
arced from branches…turned orange?


Yes. In the ultimate redundancy
the streetlights came back on.


Kissing you was like rain the night before:
while anyone could see that it was coming


it was hard to predict when the first drop would fall.
But it always falls. With a whole night to lean on


the first kiss came as easily.
And with that rain now in its twelfth hour


and your eyes so close to mine
it was hard to dodge metaphors of droughts breaking.


Inside, the terrace dusk of your room was dark grey felt.
My hands found your hands.


The rain stopped. The earth breathed,
and as we broke the crisp of brand new sheets


it seemed that everything else
had become new.

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Bondi Junction fitness gangsters are not Julia Guillard

This is by far the best hand-delivered crazy person’s letter I’ve seen today. It was left in a manila envelope at the back door of the offices of The Global Mail in Sydney, and discovered by Hugh Robertson.


There is so much to love here. The idea that Fitness First is behind the gangster takeover. The idea that all gangsters think they are the Prime Minister. The distinctly Gallic spelling of his champion’s name. The carefully selected photographs. The signature – Mark – written blockily beneath the printed text – Mark. No last name. Yes sir, I am so firmly convinced of the claims in my crazy letter that I am certainly not prepared to put my name or any identifying information to them. Take that. (Mark, do you think they don’t already know who you are?)

Oh, and the sticky tape. The dear, sweet sticky tape. 

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Hey Yumi, stop being so goddamn Japanese

I know you’ll be as shocked and disappointed as I am, but someone on television said something stupid last week.

George Negus and Yumi Stynes, on a morning talk show that no-one watches, made some smartarse comments about the intellect of an Australian soldier (or as headlines unemotionally put it, an “Aussie war hero”). The chap in question was Ben Roberts-Smith, an SAS corporal who recently won a Victoria Cross. The comment boards, radio, and news-report talking heads veritably exploded in a kind of indignant patriotic hyperventilation.

This all came to my attention when a friend in the defence force posted a Facebook note addressed to Stynes. At the time I’d never heard of her, and was wondering whether she was one of the now-adult Tin Lids, until I dug through the brain-crud deep enough to remember that their dad was Jimmy Barnes, not Jim Stynes. Having laid that crucial matter to rest, I read the following.

“An NCO in SASR is a man specially selected and trained to lead similarly selected and trained men into harm’s way to achieve objectives of national importance to Australia beyond the range and scope of conventional forces. They most often do this in either non-permissive or outright hostile environments at great personal and mission risk.”

“These men have not only prepared for and passed the infamous ‘Cadre’ Course to be accepted into the regiment, they have committed countless hours and days to their physical and professional development. A commitment almost unimaginable in today’s gentle society.”

“The NCO among them has been identified, further trained, and assessed as capable to lead them. Split-second decisions hold life-or-death ramifications for them, their mates, and their adversaries.”

“You sit on a couch, and gossip. Who do you really think should look for their brain on the bottom of the pool?”

Compared to other responses, it was accurate and dignified. But I also wondered at just how its author – someone normally impassive to society’s ignorance about the armed forces – had been stung enough to write it.

This may surprise you, but Network Ten’s The Circle is not in fact one of the names muttered reverentially by comedians as existing at the finely-honed cutting edge of their craft. So here, looking at photos of an inordinately muscle-bound Roberts-Smith in a pool, its hosts went with that old classic about how attractive people aren’t particularly smart. (A blackface skit was presumably scheduled after the break.)

Negus took the cue to speculate that it would be sad if someone attractive (and therefore stupid) was no good in bed. “But that sort of bloke…what if they’re not up to it in the sack?” he asked, prompting Stynes to question whether he was suggesting the corporal was “a dud root.” The clap-o-meter was going wild.

The real traction for the offended, though, came from presuming that the “in the sack” remark referred to Roberts-Smith conceiving his children via IVF, as he’d discussed in a current affairs interview a couple of nights previously. How dare someone insult to the virility of the corporal’s manly sack-juice?

I want to stop you here. To the best of my knowledge, after some research on the issue, I’m pretty sure that being designated as “good in the sack” does not generally correlate to your ratio of impregnation per sex act. In fact, you might argue that one factor of sack-goodness directly relates to the efforts you undertake to ensure that precisely that outcome does not result. Many other criteria of sack prowess, at the same time, involve acts from which conception is a distinctly distant possibility. From personal experience, my girlfriends have generally been much more appreciative of my bedroom efforts when I don’t knock them up than when I do. Nothing says ‘sexy’ like a first-trimester abortion.

Nonetheless, the fury of the bored media-consuming public came down like a pillar of holy cleansing fire. Channel Ten’s website, their Facebook page, any outlet that ran an article on the story, was subjected to strings of sputtering outrage from readers. A large proportion of these were demanding apologies long after all the parties involved had already issued them, which didn’t show the most comprehensive grasp of the subject.

Then again, a comprehensive grasp on anything is not really indicated by comments like “I will never watch this The Circle again. What Ms Styne and Mr Negus said was totally inappropriate. Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith is helping to keep our Great Country safe from the Terrorism.”

Consider the following (asterisks belong to the artists).

“You Yumi are simply a vacuous inconsiderate mole, and George, if you’d be too gutless to say this to Cpl. Bens face. Both of you should have your tongues slit out.”

“Yumi Stynes you are a dumb gutless low life! You live in your little bubble you know NOTHING of sacrifice you low breed talentless bi*ch!”

“Lock George up and deport that inbred bitch Yumi!!!!!”

“It doesn’t surprise me that Yumi made comments like this when she’s part Japanese..Look how the Japs treated our men in World war 2..a total disgrace of a woman..Learn your history and respect Love and get off your high ****y horse.”

“…I am appalled by the comments made by an ignorant, half Jap Bitch and an aging journo with no balls…”

Ah, there it is. That curious chain of reasoning that says: my sense of decency has been offended. The best way to defend that decency would be to subject the perpetrator and all others in earshot to a stream of violent personal abuse in a public forum.

While it was Negus who initiated the more controversial part of the conversation, Stynes was the focus of the coverage and the criticism. Negus was attacked, but generally with less ferocity, or as an afterthought. Comments about him lacked the sexual aspect, and less of the implied or explicit threat of violence.

You can’t help concluding that the tenor of this response has a lot to do with Stynes being female (What the fuck would you know about soldiers anyway?) and a lot to do with being identifiably Japanese (Our Aussie diggers died to keep morning television safe from your kind.). Never mind that Stynes was born in Swan Hill, so deportation would be a tricky exercise even if we did have a Foreign Minister.

But why so much rage to begin with? We can only arrive at the contention that, according to the values of this vocal proportion of the public, no-one has the right to disrespect Ben Roberts-Smith because he was a soldier. As the ANZAC Day mythologising seeps deeper into our cultural self-view, we end up with a situation in which Aussie soldiers are rendered sacrosanct, and no criticism of them can take place.

This is a dangerous place to be. Australian soldiers are and always have been ordinary guys wearing one of a range of funny hats. They’re ordinary guys with a bunch of specialised training in a range of things important to their profession, and perhaps not enough specialised training in others. Some do the right thing, some do the wrong thing, most do at least a little bit of both. To treat them otherwise is dishonest.

Do I respect Ben Roberts-Smith, and what he does? Absolutely. In winning his VC he showed tremendous courage. At the same time, I’m also aware that the fighters he killed were just other men, with their own lives and personalities. In another circumstance, they could as easily have ended up fighting alongside him. None of us are born so very different, it’s just the paths we take from there that can diverge.

The trenches of WWI found Britons up against German friends they’d drunk with in London or Berlin, or half-German cousins who’d chosen a continental university. Of course those cultures live closer together, but there were the Arabs who fought under T.E. Lawrence, the Saudis who joined the liberation of Kuwait, the American covert operatives aiding Iraq against Iran or Afghanistan against Russia. Allies and enemies come and go like any other ghosts.

Sure, the comments about Roberts-Smith were unnecessary and tasteless. An awful lot of what’s said on radio and television is. So is a lot of what I write, so are a lot of the conversations we have every day. Yet we rarely see this kind of response. And sure, a Victoria Cross winner doesn’t knowingly put himself in the public spotlight by virtue of his deeds in the manner of an actor or athlete. But a VC winner happy to volunteer for interviews about his personal life on national current affairs programs can’t have quite the same gripe about being discussed publicly as the curmudgeon who goes back quietly to his cabin in the woods and melts his medal into an ashtray.

VCs don’t come along very often, and as many generations of commanders have known, a VC is more for the soldiers still fighting and the people back home than it is for the recipient. It lifts morale, gives a sense of achievement, of collective ownership of the struggle. “Our VC winners,” people say. By going public with his achievements, Roberts-Smith agrees to be part of that charm offensive.

So the comments were inane. Of course they were. They were made on a show that devotes half of its airtime to informercials promoting new ways to slice carrots. It’s not exactly contributing a lot to society. If a bunch of us were stranded in the jungle, Yumi would probably be the first to be devoured by wild pigs.

All of which just adds to the case for ‘who gives a shit?’ If a man can storm two machine gun posts singlehanded and emerge as the only survivor, I hardly think the not-so-biting satire of a couple of TV hosts is going to keep him blinking at the ceiling through the late hours. Given Ben’s work in defending us from The Terrorism, he probably doesn’t need Schlubhead from Donger Beach to volunteer to defend him, especially not with some charmless noise about killing or deporting the citizens that Ben is tasked to protect.

And yet the letters section of the papers have been full of it. The RSL has been making announcements. Federal politicians from both sides of politics are feeling the need to make their comments known. In the meantime, Syria’s on fire.

Time to get back in your goddamn boxes. And spare a thought for the people being forcibly put in theirs.

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As a poet, Rinehart makes a great billionaire

Thank you, Gina Rinehart. As the editor of a long-running poetry journal, I thank Rinehart for putting the noble art of verse in the media spotlight.

The critics, as Rinehart knows, are harsh. They criticise your poetry. They criticise your attempts to become a media magnate. They are probably going to abduct your children. That could be handy, because you don’t like your children very much, but that is nobody else’s business. Get off my lawn.

But in all the talk of Rinehart as a crazy person, people are forgetting what matters — the poetry. Australia, it’s time to assess Rinehart’s work dispassionately, in content and structure.

‘Our Future’ (the full ode below) attempts a noble challenge: the rendering of economic theory and politico-economic ideology into stirring verse. Some call it impossible to include phrases such as “special economic zones” in a fluid and aesthetically pleasing poem. Those people are right. But Rinehart doesn’t let that stop her. If it doesn’t fit, she’ll shoehorn the bastard in there anyway.

The first thing you notice about Rinehart’s poem is that it passes the Crusty Old Bugger in a Pub test. Namely, it rhymes. Second, she starts out with noble intent. She’s read The Man from Snowy River. She knows poems go dum-de-dum. And in fact, the first two lines are in almost functional iambic pentameter.

If that phrase scares you, it just means there is an unstressed syllable followed by an emphasised syllable. That pattern repeats five times, for 10 syllables in total, which in combination form a line. Viz:

The globe is sadly groaning with debt, poverty and strife
And billions now are pleading to enjoy a better life.

Obviously Rinehart is aware of the metre, as she’s thrown the word “now” into that second line to maintain it. Her only false step is “debt”, which doesn’t work as an unstressed syllable before a stressed “pov(erty)”. I might have suggested “with economies in strife”, had she had the forethought to seek my professional opinion. (Hint, Gina: good poetry editors are pretty freaking thin on the ground.)

In terms of content, it is perhaps a little dubious to hear sad tales of poverty from the person stewing in the most obscene swill of mineral cash in the entire country. For those who do want a better life, the poet in question would be in a better practical position to help them than any other Australian. Set up farms across the sub-Saharan belt? Still got change to play blackjack with Kerry Packer’s ghost. Dengue fever in India? Scrub it off like the Spray and Wipe chick. A team of mercenaries to take out Bashar al-Assad? Her PA would have his scalp in Gina’s inbox before she’d finished her morning muffin.

Their hope lies with resources buried deep within the earth
And the enterprise and capital which give each project worth

Not bad, not bad. The metre is a bit frayed, but still there in intent. Maybe a slight reshaping would help: “Their hopes are the resources buried deep within the earth / And the enterprise and capital which make ‘em what they’re worth.” Always read the lines aloud to yourself. Plus, the abbreviation of “them” gives it a nice bush-ballad feel, no? True blue and that. But then, we start to go off the rails …

Is our future threatened with massive debts run up by political hacks
Who dig themselves out by unleashing rampant tax
The end result is sending Australian investment, growth and jobs offshore
This type of direction is harmful to our core

The first line of those four abandons metre, as rhetoric stirs from its meat-coma and begins to lick its spit-flecked jaws. Every bad poet loves adjectives. Who can resist “massive”? Who can resist an awkward phrase like “political hacks”? And then we get to that third line, which actually came from an Institute of Public Affairs white paper.

Poetry is basically about making something sound good, or putting across a new and interesting way of seeing. This sounds like a Joe Hockey press conference submerged in tomato soup. The line is overly long and awkward, the Bruce Reid of this poem, which is then followed by the Danny de Vito, jammed in there as an afterthought while Gina tried to think of something to rhyme with “offshore”.

Rhetoric is off the leash now, and it roams like the Beast of the Apocalypse (either Biblical or the weird creature in The Brotherhood of the Wolf). Those who criticise Rinehart for being insanely rich and still bitching about taxes are “envious unthinking people” who think wealth is magically created. (To be fair, inheriting an immense mining company does help sprinkle a bit of fairy dust on the old investment portfolio.) Rinehart is hurt and troubled by their attitudes.

And then, the final four lines: a crescendo of disjointedness, as both reason and poetic technique disintegrate.

Develop North Australia, embrace multiculturalism and welcome short term foreign workers to our shores
To benefit from the export of our minerals and ores

One, the long line/short line thing again. Rinehart is getting all Ogden Nash on us here, if you replace the wit with self-righteous indignation. Two, “embrace multiculturalism and welcome short term foreign workers to our shores” just doesn’t cut it as a line. Does that sound good to you? Does that ring with the authority of naturalistic rhythm and truth? Is this question rhetorical?

Three, is it strictly fair to equate “embrace multiculturalism” with “bring in a bunch of really cheap foreigners for a while to make us arseloads of cash and then make sure to send the dirty buggers back to wherever it is they came from”? The second phrase is even more unwieldy in a poetic sense, but I feel it cuts closer to the essential truth of the matter.

The world’s poor need our resources: do not leave them to their fate
Our nation needs special economic zones and wiser government, before it is too late.

Ah, the crowning triumph. “Special economic zones” bounding in like a photobomber of verse, resting its nuts on the crown of poetry’s head. Again, the not-so-delicious irony of an appeal on behalf of the world’s poor. Not to labour a point here, but we are talking about the richest man, woman, or erotic llama masseuse in the country. And yet, this is about philanthropy.

The poor need our resources. Not for free of course, for an appropriate fee. So, the world’s poor need to buy shit from Gina Rinehart. Do not leave them to their fate of not buying shit from Gina Rinehart. Do not abandon them.

And you know, as it happens, those things that are in the interests of the world’s poor just so happen to be in the interests of making Gina Rinehart wealthier. Not that that’s the issue here. It’s just a coincidence. Rinehart just loves art and literature, and really, guys, this is all about the poor.

Rinehart’s philanthropy, it seems, is much like her iambic pentameter. It can be applied when it suits, and abandoned when it becomes inconvenient.

Yep. Poetic licence revoked.

Our Future

The globe is sadly groaning with debt, poverty and strife
And billions now are pleading to enjoy a better life
Their hope lies with resources buried deep within the earth
And the enterprise and capital which give each project worth
Is our future threatened with massive debts run up by political hacks
Who dig themselves out by unleashing rampant tax
The end result is sending Australian investment, growth and jobs offshore
This type of direction is harmful to our core
Some envious unthinking people have been conned
To think prosperity is created by waving a magic wand
Through such unfortunate ignorance, too much abuse is hurled
Against miners, workers and related industries who strive to build the world
Develop North Australia, embrace multiculturalism and welcome short term foreign workers to our shores
To benefit from the export of our minerals and ores
The world’s poor need our resources: do not leave them to their fate
Our nation needs special economic zones and wiser government, before it is too late.

Gina Rinehart


Article first published on Crikey.

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Christmas, or How I learned to stop wishing a violent death on reindeer

One more sleep till D-Day… but this year, I’ve actually felt good about Christmas. It’s not a familiar feeling. In my adult life, Christmas tradition has involved ambivalence tending to hostility, a fortnight of creeping despair, then curling up after a bottle of cognac to cry in a corner and throw up mince on the rug. Many of those years, if the bloke in the red suit had existed, I would have left him out a roast leg of venison and hoped that the reindeer could smell it on his clothes. No doubt many of us go through stages like this, where we want to go out and club a ringy-dingy elf right in the head.

And no wonder. The season can’t compete with how it was as a kid, when days were as long as novels and “Ten more minutes” was a judicial sentence. The heat somehow arrived earlier. The lead-up to Christmas stretched out to the horizon, as afternoons led a charge deep into the evenings and the grass dried to gold. Stepping outside to air already hot before we’d dressed for school. The toy shops excruciating in their possibility. The advent calendar crawling by, glue and crappy chocolate marking days that dragged out their final demise like a row of dying grandparents. We packed three summers in before the holidays even began, then those final few pre-Christmas days, the wonder of a sky still light at 8pm, peeking through the leaves behind the little church at Research, the chirping of insects mixing with the sound of carols and the smell of evening air.

But with adolescence, the scale of time compacted like osteoporotic spines on a Bolivian bus ride. December came too soon each year, this unwelcome guest that muscled its way in, a bunch of K-Mart catalogues telling us how we should feel. The migraine stink of high-gloss paper and the shriek of Harvey Fucking Norman drill sergeants hounding us down our hallways into discount whitegood dreams.

Perhaps it was spending those early days in stifling primary-school portables that had conjured the feel of endless summer. But with our internal hormone supernovae boiling through our skins, we faced the world with simmering resentment. While still too close to childhood, and too disgusted by children, to allow nostalgia to flourish, we recognised the shift. Like most of life before the hormones hit, Christmas had been easy, and now it was not. Whatever it was, it was dead to us.

That view persisted. So with adulthood, and the options that it made available, I slowly withdrew from Christmas, an ever-more-peripheral participant. The year I dealt roulette at Melbourne’s casino was the death knell, and not just from being rostered on Christmas Day. While previous employees will no doubt remember fondly Kerry’s staff hampers (probably since axed by James), I remember the cas floor playing a 50-minute loop of Christmas songs on repeat from November through to February. Ten times a shift, five shifts a week…

Nor are we talking some classy Stille Nacht chorale here, but the most gut-churning discharge of kitsch to be excreted, hot and thick and yellow, from the pus-gland of the season – think ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ sung by seasons-old reality TV contestants, or some Bing Crosby fake doing Busty the Snowman (ten percent of the lyrics changed to avoid royalties), all sung in that breathy, idiot-grinning voice that fuckwits use to speak to children. As corny as an Aztec turd in a tortilla, and about as appealing.

On Christmas Eve, with a packed table in front of me and the dull drumbeat of murder behind my eyes, I spun a floater – one of those anomalies of physics where the ball hangs on the divider between two numbers for several minutes and refuses to drop. The only recourse is to wait. ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ filled the interim, caressing our ears like a gang of chainsaws fighting in fast-forward.

When the ball finally fell, away from the number that an agonised gentleman’s pulsing forehead veins had been urging, all I could say was a cheery “Looks like the Baby Jesus doesn’t love you!” as I swiped the table clean. My humanity had crawled back within some dim recess to die, and dragged the twitching corpse of Christmas with it.

From then on, Christmas saw me travelling, working, only using it as a means to examine other places. Years ticked by but that ambivalence remained undimmed. Then last December, recently returned from a long trip away, I led a house party in a 3am chorus of ‘Jerusalem’. After the neighbours yelled at us, my friend Em suggested I should come to carols that week.

“Arrright, sure…” I said, extricating myself from a fence.

“No, you’re just drunk,” she said. “As if you’ll do it.”

She was right about the first part. But as with many, alcohol in my system will see even the most innocuous challenge met with bloody-minded resolve. “Oh really? Is that right? As if. I’ll totally do it. I’ll go the day before. I’ll see allll the carols before you even get there. Whatever. I don’t care. Hey, chips.”

Drunken honour being what it is, I went. Em’s old school choir sang in the sweeping vault of St Paul’s. Those songs started creaking themselves out of the dusky corners of memory. Once in Royal David’s City, stood a… whosy-whatsit… yeah…

And all of a sudden it just felt right. I mean, I’m no fan of any religious doctrine, never sure why long-dead cultures should define our moral code. Something doesn’t quite gel about taking our cues on sexual conduct from people who thought that impregnating twelve-year-olds was a pretty sweet way to pass your day. But the more harmless traditions can be comforting, and there is much to admire in the Church’s art. In the strains of those songs and the glow of candles, the clock wound back. A certain stiffness of the heart fell away. Something felt like Christmas, and I left smiling.

I spent the next two weeks in my family home. The service had tagged a starting point, and now there was a prelude, not just December tripping over itself into a pile of tinsel. In the days leading up, I sat in the house where I was raised, the doors open on their screens, my father playing the piano, my mother mixing Christmas cakes dense as antimatter on the broad kitchen bench.

All those twinges from childhood came back. The memory of heat. Up late at night, when that alone had an illicit thrill. Coming down the stairs in short pyjamas, a tree all pulsing colour and gold. The residual happiness from singing, latent food aromas behind the sharpness of fresh pine.  A sense of ease, like everything and everyone was sitting back, the way Dad and I would sit together late when it was too hot to sleep, an hour or more without a word. The insects talked for us and the leaves were still and the night air gave warmth and sustenance like amniotic fluid. That and the quiet and the lights dimmed to burnt orange made it feel like we were floating in amber.

Yesterday, collecting a sack of dead poultry from my parents’ butcher, I drove past my old primary school, yawning vacant with holidays. On a whim I stopped and wandered in, for the first time in uncounted years. Between worrying that I would be picked up by the cops as the world’s tardiest kiddy-fiddler (come on man, iCal that shit), I was struck by those things I’ve read to cliché but hadn’t yet experienced. How the whole place seemed to have been miniaturised, its most epic expanses shrunk to a few dozen steps. How strange and yet familiar it was – around the new buildings and refigurations were the old roofs I’d climbed, old railings I’d sat on, the path to my Grade 5 classroom leading to a portable that was no longer there. Concrete trailing off into long grass like a half-finished sentence.

Across the road, the church whose yard had once meant Christmas had now been turned into a childcare centre, the old shortcut to the shops fenced off, the short sharp hill where I broke my leg landscaped to a child-friendly gradient. But the sense of it remained. Our early lives can be that close, if only we reach out for them. Poignant moment of reflection aside, I got home to learn that Dad had managed to trip over the dog and fall into the pool with the whipper-snipper.

This Christmas, I count my blessings. Despite their efforts, my parents and my sisters are alive and well. One sister is far from us in Canada, but she is safe and she is whole. This is not the case for so many families, who live with painful gaps around their table.

And this year, Christmas feels right. December’s skies are gold and salmon-pink, the evenings lie open in their mildness. Tonight I will meet my friend for carols again, and sing those songs that won’t seem so unfamiliar. Afterwards, late, I’ll sit in my family kitchen, hulling stone fruit, listening to the piano. Then sitting, still, lights dimmed to amber. And tomorrow my family will wake in a leisurely fashion, no small people driving us to early-morning ritual. We’ll cook, and eat, and make each other cry with laughter, and choose not to wonder how many more repeats of this we’ll be allowed. The season has its stories. Through them all is that little stomach-twist of anticipation, an echo of what I felt as a child. I can feel it stirring.

And so this is Christmas. And what have we done? We’ve done this. Not the way that junk-mail brochures told us it should be, but this, our own thing, that we have made. My lifetime’s worth of stories, and the gratitude that the collection may be added to. However long it took, I’m glad I found my way back to them in the end.





First published on The Punch.

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Talking on the internet

Morning all. If you want to chat to me on the internet today, I’ll be live-blogging the first Test against New Zealand, over at The Roar.

The link is below, all comments and conversations welcome.


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The life and death of Peter Roebuck: a good man, a bad man, or something in between

I was late to hear about Peter Roebuck’s death. Camping in a state forest near Narrandera, with New South Welsh clocks showing the early hours of Sunday, it was just one part of an outside world kept at bay. Come Monday evening, the news as fresh a shock as in any earlier iteration, I found myself tracing the story’s evolution back to its beginning.

The process has been desperately sad. As a fellow writer of sport, I held Roebuck above most others. As someone for whom cricket is about emotional resonance more than entertainment, Roebuck’s voice was part of my life, the soundscape of summer nostalgia as much as highway air past the car window or the shriek of seagulls.

At the same time, while bleakly, it has been instructive and fascinating to see how the various strands of media handle a case so complex and ambiguous. Roebuck has died leaving more question marks than the most enthusiastic YouTube commenter, and given the closed nature of South African policing, straight answers may never be forthcoming.

Reports through Sunday were brief, bare, and often wrong. Found dead in a hotel room. Fallen from a window. Police had spoken to him earlier that day. Were with him at the time. Visions of foul play circled thick and dark as evening bats.

On Monday came the obituaries. “Tragedy far greater than 47 all out has struck cricket, and this should be a Roebuck column. But it isn’t one, and can’t be one, and never will be one again, because the tragedy is Peter Roebuck. He is dead.” So wrote Greg Baum, in a front-page piece choked with emotion. Details were still hazy, but the final sentence of Baum’s quote was deemed the important part. Responses flowed accordingly – Neil Manthorpe, Vic Marks, Tim Lane all paid their respects.

As early as Monday night though, online reports were emerging, passed on in Tuesday’s papers. That Roebuck had been accused of sexual assault, that the visiting police were of the relevant ilk. That investigations were underway.

The eulogies, of course, have been heartfelt, mostly from colleagues and friends. In general coverage, though, the overwhelming sensation has been uneasiness, a media shifting awkwardly on its chair. As yet, they still don’t have a fix on this story. They want Roebuck to be A Good Man or A Bad Man. The prospect that someone might be both is too much to bear.

The stakes, given the conservative presentation of news, are high. No outlet wants to say nice things about someone who turns out to be Bad, or ill about someone Good. Early reports had more hedges than ever shared an advertising hoarding with Benson.

But ultimately, the lure of the lurid is strong. While Fairfax papers have stood by their man, others here and overseas have been sketching an unpleasant narrative, though one built sufficiently on insinuation and clever positioning that it can be backed away from at short notice.

Essentially, it is the suggestion of Roebuck as a long-term sexual exploiter of boys.

The main thing mentioned in each suggestive news piece, and embraced by vicious blogs as vindication, is the current accusation of assault. Apparently a reminder is due that allegations do not equal guilt, and that sexual impropriety is both the easiest charge to make and the hardest to dispel. Just ask Anwar Ibrahim.

The accusation itself has been given little study. Various reports have it as an ‘attempted sexual assault’, a hazy concept if ever there were one. Attempting a nightclub kiss could be classed as such if the recipient were not amenable.

It is in keeping with the implied narrative that every report refers to the complainant specifically as a “young man”. The man was 26, not the youth implied. To suggest he lacked the capacity to deflect an advance is specious.

Then there’s the possibility of a set-up, which no report I’ve read has yet considered. There are two potential motivations. Sexual accusations are frequently used in blackmail, especially in poorer countries. A high-profile foreigner with a seemingly large supply of philanthropic dollars, Roebuck would have been an obvious target.

Or something bigger? Roebuck was the single most outspoken critic of Zimbabwean politics in the cricketing world. He knew a lot about the country, and castigated ZanuPF politicians and Zimbabwe Cricket Board officials specifically and by name. Much of the diplomatic pressure on Zimbabwe comes from cricketing nations like Australia and Britain, who are more often than others minded of its existence. Roebuck was a wicked acacia thorn in Mugabe’s side.

Trading on one infamous incident in Roebuck’s past, a sexual allegation would be a most effective means of discredit. That a Zimbabwean national should make the accusation within days of Roebuck’s arrival in Africa, after seeking him out online and arranging a hotel meeting, is worthy of note and investigation. Strange that no allegations were ever made in the many years Roebuck spent in Australia.

After the assault allegations, most reports have also touched on Roebuck’s charity house in Pietermaritzburg. Again, the emphasis is on age, citing “young men” and often “boys”. The “boys” in question are mostly in their mid-20s and going through university. The coaching of language gives a different impression.

Look, says the implication. Here is a young African man accusing Roebuck of assault. Here are other young African men under his care and control. Some of the internet’s fouler repositories have taken this to its furthest conclusion, painting Roebuck as a colonialist pervert creating stockpiles of the vulnerable to satisfy his rampant demand for flesh. They have even read sexual malice into some of his sponsored orphans calling him ‘Dad.’

The suggestions are beyond obscene. Roebuck’s students past and present have greeted his death with shock and grief, and described him in glowing terms, as a generous man and a genuine father figure. Not one has suggested any impropriety on his part. Not one has been asked how they feel about his life’s best work being twisted into de facto evidence against him.

All this nudging, rustling, and whispering is essentially based on the one incident. In 1999, we’ve been told countless times in the last few days, Roebuck caned three white South African cricketers. This was well before his charity work started, when he was taking on aspiring players in England for a training regime.

The cricketers are always described as “boys”, despite being 19, and perfectly old enough to have told him to go and jump if they had chosen. The only one contacted by the media this week said he bore Roebuck no ill will, and described him as “a brilliant mind”.

Yes, it’s an odd one, but the level of assumption is unsupportable. Every report has implied a sexual aspect to the caning, when Roebuck belonged to a generation that was routinely caned at school. Much has been made of the judge’s line about it being “done to satisfy some need in you”, without quoting the subsequent sentence in which he refers to establishing a position of power, not to getting one’s rocks off.

This doesn’t mean I’m here to make the case for caning. But presumptions about things that don’t involve you are easy to get wrong. The most prosaic intent can become sinister in the telling. In 2003, I was spotted breaking into a Carlton apartment and leaving with a bag of women’s underwear. As it happened, my girlfriend’s faulty front door latch sometimes needed to be popped with a credit card, and it was my turn to make the run to the laundromat. Cuff me.

Whatever happened in Roebuck’s case, the caning trial was an utter humiliation, and probably the lowest point of his life. He went to ground afterwards, and thought about staying down. Whether he did or didn’t have a case to answer in South Africa, it seems likely that his memory of that first case led to his fatal despair in contemplating fighting another.

It is a sad end. Alive, Roebuck could perhaps have cleared his name. Now, the investigation will likely trail off. Conjecture will continue. The nation’s news services will maintain their vacillation between respecting the revered writer and sniping at the potential villain. We probably won’t get an answer. Roebuck will neither become a comfortably Good Man nor an entirely Bad one. Like the hypocritical mass of the rest of us, he’ll fall somewhere in between.

First published on Crikey.

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Tie the Kangaroo down, Joyce

Jesus motherloving Christ. If Alan Joyce is making a late bid for Twat of the Year 2011, then he’s eating daylight on his competitors. On Saturday the Qantas CEO shut down worldwide operations of one of the planet’s biggest airlines, in an over-reaction that made King Lear look pretty chill.

Like one of those seasoned chooks you get all ready for roasting, some things come pre-satirised. On Friday, Joyce asked shareholders at Qantas’ annual general meeting to give him a pay rise of 71 percent, from under $3 million a year to about $5 million. They did. The next day, he shut down their company entirely, because of the “extreme demands” of workers. First prize, Alan. Believe.

Where unions have to give 72 hours notice of any action, Joyce gave zero hours. He stranded 68,000 people worldwide, upended the plans of tens of thousands more, and lost an unquantifiable number of future bookings.

And why? To force an advantage in an industrial dispute that was nowhere near crisis point. To stand on a milk crate in a pissing contest. And he got just the elevation he was after. An emergency sitting of the Fair Work Australia tribunal handed down its orders at about 2.30 this morning, terminating all Qantas industrial action – both the grounding and any strikes by unions. This was just what Qantas counsel had campaigned for from minute one of the hearing.

Planes could be up as early as this afternoon. But the scope of cancellations to date has already seen foreign leaders miss connections home from CHOGM. It will leave a huge dent in the Spring Racing Carnival, one of Victoria’s biggest weeks for tourism. 300 remote area doctors were stuck in Alice Springs with no way to reach their patients. And it happened to be smack bang in the middle of what is for many people a five-day weekend.

From all appearances, Joyce timed it to cause as much damage and disruption as possible. He gave no warning deliberately. He knew the chaos his airline could cause, and how much pressure it would place on the government. “Qantas apologise for any inconvenience caused” should be met with a hiss. The amount of inconvenience caused has been carefully maximised.

Imagine for a second that unions had shut down the airline without a minute’s forewarning. There would be calls for them to be criminally liable. For them to be disbanded. The Opposition would be tearing into the government tooth and claw.

Joyce wants to blame unions regardless, but it won’t save his reputation, nor that of Qantas. In his media blitz yesterday, as repercussions manifested in the form of stressed, worn, and teary passengers, Joyce was standing among the wreckage of the company he’s supposed to run, congratulating himself on his “bold decision”. Here was a man who wanted to get rid of the possums in his roof, so called in a napalm strike.

The reek of ego, rutting in the streets and smearing its musk on mailboxes, is the inescapable odour wafting through Melbourne’s streets in these quiet hours before dawn. From his comments on Sunday, Joyce was tired of negotiating. Manufacturing a crisis gave him a chance to skip it. He clearly believes the FWA intervention will get his preferred result.

Qantas and the three unions in question now have three weeks to reach agreement before having one imposed on them by FWA. But with Joyce’s muscle-flex having demonstrated just how firmly he can twist the national arm behind its back, the odds for something favouring Qantas management look good.

But the most offensive thing isn’t disruption. These things happen, sometimes for the best of reasons. For mine, the offensive thing is Joyce’s level of spin. Yes, a part of Spring Carnival is the unmistakable tang of horseshit in the air. It’s just not usually contingent on a Qantas CEO opening his mouth.

For starters, Joyce lumps all three unions together: those of the engineers (ALAEA), the baggage handlers (TWU), and the long-haul pilots (AIPA). He tries to claim they have forced this decision, with rolling strikes in recent months costing $68 million, and an unsustainable wage demand.

Yet the pilots’ association has made no pay claim, nor taken any strike action. Their campaign, completely separate to those of the other unions, is about insisting that Qantas-trained pilots are used to fly Qantas-branded planes, rather than using cheaper offshore replacements.

In AIPA’s first industrial action in 44 years, the extent of the campaign has been to wear red ties bearing a slogan, and to mention the campaign in their pre-flight announcements. They haven’t delayed a single flight to date.

As for the rest of the strike, the TWU has recorded just six hours of industrial action in the past eight months. And according to the Daily Telegraph, a full month of industrial action by engineers in September still saw Qantas cancel fewer flights than the unaffected Jetstar.

I interviewed a Qantas domestic pilot on Saturday evening, who unsurprisingly asked not to be named. He claims limited industrial action can even suit management. “It gives the airline a chance to cancel whichever flights they want. Airlines cancel flights all the time for various reasons, like if a flight’s not full enough. It gives them a nice excuse to hand out to the public.”

No wonder everyone was blindsided. Action was still relatively minor. Qantas had not even suggested government mediation, the logical step when negotiations aren’t going well. It appears that Joyce decided it was beneath him to participate.

And where his magical $68 million loss comes from is as mysterious as Joyce’s other accounting. According to Joyce yesterday, his pay rise wasn’t really a pay rise. According to Joyce a few months back, 1000 Qantas jobs would be lost offshore. According to Joyce this weekend, that number was zero. As my pilot interviewee said, “He’s a mathematician, but he hasn’t done anything to show that he has the qualifications.”

Of course, it’s the offshore threat that is the sticking point in negotiations, with unions wanting some guarantee this won’t happen. Joyce’s plans are for exactly that to happen.

You can see the model with Qantas’ New Zealand routes: planes with Qantas flight numbers, Qantas paintwork, and Qantas uniforms, but staffed entirely by New Zealanders employed by a Qantas front called Jetconnect. The difference? Staff cost 40 percent less, receiving NZ dollars on an NZ pay scale.

You can extrapolate, then, what Joyce’s plans for a large Qantas subsidiary based in Asia would mean. If you think the exchange rate is good in Auckland, try Kuala Lumpur. Try Bangkok. Jetstar, which Joyce used to run, is already using Thai crew, who cost a couple of hundred bucks a month. An Australian would earn that in a day.

No wonder they quietly withdrew that John Travolta safety video. “There’s no-one I’d rather have at the controls than a Qantas pilot,” said the man who played Vincent Vega. Union scum.

In grounding the fleet with no warning, Joyce and his board showed utter disregard for their employees, their shareholders, and their public. Even a couple of days’ notice would have ameliorated the consequences.

Truly remarkable, isn’t it, that it didn’t occur to Joyce to mention the prospect at the AGM. As the Financial Review’s Marcus Priest wrote, “There will be some interesting questions of corporate disclosure and directors’ duties to be explored in any subsequent legal proceedings.”

But this is where his other great dance begins: regarding premeditation. Joyce claims that he and the board only decided on the lockout scheme on Saturday morning. It was in effect by 5 pm. Mate, it takes me longer than that to organise knock-off drinks.

Pilot union vice-president Richard Woodward says Qantas were booking thousands of hotel rooms days or even weeks ago to accommodate stranded passengers. At Saturday night’s initial FWA hearing, counsel for the APIA and the TWU requested documents which showed the pre-existence of plans. Qantas, surprisingly, opposed the move. Nothing to hide…

Counsel for Qantas Frank Parry also complained that in potentially being ordered to continue negotiations, “Qantas has been dragged in here at short notice and been presented with an untenable alternative”.

Barman, I’ll have a Bullshitski. You want short notice, talk to the people whose planes were recalled as they were taxiing to the runway. Ask the woman rushing to see her father before he died. The only party with any notice was Qantas – as much notice as they liked, since it was up to them to pick the date.

The denials, in the end, are impossibly juvenile. We’ve got a kid arm-deep in the cookie jar while querying the existence of baked goods. This is the way of Joyce’s regime. Just listen to his Inside Business interview with Alan Kohler – every single answer starts with a refutation. Everything is justified. Poor brave Alan made the difficult decision. That’s why they pay him the big bucks. And if you want a culprit, those bloody unions are to blame.

Of course, those of a certain view will always find a way to blame unions. The unions faked the moon landings. The unions gave me herpes. Union dingoes took my baby. The unions are the reason why my kids hate me and my wife never quite looks me in the eye anymore.

It’s all their fault. Oh, and sorry, for punching you in the face repeatedly, but I couldn’t solve the crossword this morning, so, take it up with The Times.

Even the great Americain, dropping a few horse-apples as he heads out to early trackwork this morning, can’t match the size of these Joycean steamers. A company which has not even asked for arbitration can’t suddenly claim last resort. A guy who initiates crisis can’t deflect responsibility.

“They are trashing our strategy and our brand. They must decide just how badly they want to hurt Qantas, their members… and the travelling public.” Said the man who shut down the airline. Said the man who fisted every customer for his own tactical advantage. Said the man who made headlines in papers round the world for the worst possible reason.

See? The bloke must have a beef with workers. He’s trying to put satirists out of a job as well.




This piece was originally published on The Punch.

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