Monday, July 09, 2018

                                                              “Black Elvis” (Gnarnayarrahe Waitairie)

                                                              Uncle Jack Charles, with Jason Tamiru on clapsticks

Was lucky to be in Melbourne on Saturday for a rusted-on winter treat.  On a cold and grey day with a howling south-westerly wind, I was expecting the courtyard between ACCA and the Malthouse Theatre to be a wind-tunnel or vortex.   As it turned out, the afternoon’s festivities “Dhumba Narbethong” – an outdoor program to complement the “A Lightness of Spirit is the Measure of Happiness” exhibition indoors at ACCA – met the weather halfway, as aided by, the impressive South Face of ACCA, aka the Colossus of Rust, corralling the wind into a merely bracing northerly.   

Without sun or shadow, the monumental architecture of ACCA and the adjacent red tollway tunnel smokestack receded into a matte background and utilitarian shelter for a stage.  On “stage” – a campfire in the round but with a tacit backstage quadrant to the north-east – were some remarkable performances.  Songs and stories that were intimate and relaxed – but on another level, commanded a vortex to infinity, up and through that edge in the sky between the blue-and-white wisps and the giant slate-grey sheets held mesmerisingly at bay.  The fourth wall as sheer matte-ness, and a glimpse of the monumental form of one attenuated moment.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Notes on the origin of  “b**ng”

The pejorative term “b**ng” for Indigenous Australians is generally thought to be a peculiarly Australian offshoot of the ultra-respectful “bung”, an Indonesian/Malaysian word literally translated as older brother.

Until the other day, I hadn’t thought about the word’s origins.  I had long assumed that Australia’s equivalent to America’s n-word – although a case can be made that Australia’s word rather trumps America’s in the offensiveness stakes # – was home-grown and of unknown provenance.  After recently coming across a 1954 account of the word “b**ng” being coined by a posh Pom visiting Alice Springs in August 1924, I looked up Wikipedia and then realised that the real story has become overlooked or forgotten, in favour of a peculiarly Australian bullshit one.  In short, the adaptation of “bung” theory is fanciful, illogical and conveniently benign.

The real origin of “b**ng” is set out in an article by Malcolm Ellis, “From Alice to Albert”, Bulletin 17 March 1954 pp 22-23, with the addition of some background context (not about the b-word specifically) from his 1927 book The Long Lead. 

Passing through Alice Springs in August 1924, on the return leg of “the first complete double-crossing of [Australia] by motor-car from Sydney to Darwin and back” Ellis – and his co-expeditionaries Francis Birtles and JL Simpson, of the Bean motor-car company – spent a few days there (this trip was – unusually for the time – neither a race nor a scientific or other extravaganza). 

Coincidentally, soon after Ellis’ arrival from the north, Lord Stradbroke (1862-1947) and his party made a grand entrance into Alice Springs, by motor-car from the south.  Also known as the Earl of Stradbroke, he lived mainly in the UK, but had a five-year stint in Australia as Governor of Victoria 24 Feb 1921 to 7 April 1926.   
To further welcome Lord Stradbroke, a major Indigenous ceremony took place that August 1924 night (on then-vacant land that, in 1954, was occupied by the “Inland Mission radio-centre”), one that – in the manner of a grand such occasion – was still seemingly fresh in Malcolm Ellis’ mind 30 years later.  But there was also something niggling Malcolm Ellis’ mind in 1954:  a casually uttered snipe by Lord Stradbroke that day in 1924, when he passed by The Bungalow.  

In 1924, The Bungalow was (and had been since 1914) a collection of dilapidated sheds behind the Stuart Arms Hotel in downtown Alice Springs (which at the time had only six white residents), which functioned as a home for “half caste” children.  Recoiling at the sight of its inhabitants, Lord Stradbroke coined it “The B**ng” – a word which then stuck, and spread.

What happened next is important to the nuances of how the b-word evolved.  Firstly, Lord Stradbroke was right to recoil at the squalid conditions in which The Bungalow’s inhabitants then lived.  Indeed, after his return to Sydney in 1924, Malcolm Ellis wrote an influential, nationally-syndicated article which exposed these conditions and four years later led to the Bungalow’s relocation, in better premises ##.  But for Lord Stradbroke, the squalid built environment of “The B**ng” and its location in the backyard of a pub was synonymous with its human cargo.  There was nothing else to say about or hope for them: b**ngs they would always remain.  Whatever else was going on inside Lord Stradbroke's head that day, given the ceremony that night, he deserves nomination, I think, as a candidate for history's Least Honourable Guest of Honour ever.

That a passing cheap-shot from an English overlord has since been so effortlessly laundered of its provenance and enthusiastically absorbed – complete with false, benign paternity – into the lowest rung of the Australian vernacular is an intriguing window into the colonial insecurity and inhumanity that lies shallowly beneath white Australia.
# See the last line of the Alex Buzo play, “Norm and Ahmed”

## Stuart Traynor, Alice Springs:  from singing wire to iconic outback town (2016) pp 236-239, 288. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Now, for the plebiscite on the definition of bullying

Readers of this blog may be aware that I am a gay man, who has long – and consistently, albeit not recently – advocated the case against gay marriage.   A few months ago, however, I changed my mind.  Six weeks ago, I voted yes, with some reservations.  The most interesting part of my journey here, I think, is how the “No” case has so successfully changed my opinion on this issue over recent months – and how, just this morning, a ridiculous op-ed from a “No”-case proponent has convinced me to cast aside my remaining reservations. 

So take a bow, Margaret Court and Professor Patrick Parkinson (among others) – through your hysterical invocation of the “No”-case proponents as being bullied victims of the gay lobby, you have showed up the flimsy foundations of your stance, and so – obviously unintentionally – swung my vote, at least, to a “Yes”.  You have allowed what seems to be some kind of deep-seated personal insecurity (to put it kindly) to morph into a pseudo-objective opinion on something that is (to put it politely) none of your business.  Oh, and also perverted the meaning of the word “bullying”, and its English language cognates.

In today’s op-ed, Professor Parkinson zeroes in on the case of a man apparently sacked from his job in England for expressing in public a very mild opposition to gay marriage. I suspect that there is more to this case than Professor Parkinson grants – but it would be impossible for me to drill down from afar into the objective truth here, so let’s take the case study at face value.  The International Gay Lobby has ruthlessly crushed this poor man, Professor Parkinson seems to imply.  And possibly also countless others?  If so, great swathes of these “bullied victims” are palpably silent.  Perhaps Professor Parkinson’s implication is that they are mostly too afraid to talk.

Gosh, poor dears.  As a gay man, I presumably must have had little lived experience of bullying.  Losing one’s job because of sexuality must be under Professor Parkinson’s logic, a still rarer thing than being bullied for being a “no”-case proponent.  Funnily enough, though, the former has happened to me – as a law lecturer, albeit quite a while ago. (Conversely and more recently, my earlier “no”-case public views, did not attract any criticism that I would call out as unduly harsh).  Perhaps I should be your next international cause celebre/meme, eh Professor Parkinson?

But of course I jest here – my experience of life-changing discrimination here is no different to the lot of many millions of other LGTBI+ people in the first-world.  And outside the first-world, of course, things are far worse.  I count myself lucky for never been in serious fear of my life because of my sexuality, but there have been many unpleasant incidents over three decades, including being spat at in an outdoor café in central Melbourne, in broad daylight, two years ago, by a ~18 y.o. boy/man – whose ethnic appearance placed him as coming from what from today can euphemistically be called the “No” suburbs.  I was apparently guilty of wearing a too-tight T-shirt – hence his spit (in my eye) and his yell of “Faggot!” to go with it.  Again, far too everyday an experience to bother going to the police about; and the café staff just shrugged when I told them what had just happened (in case they hadn’t seen it for themselves).      

In conclusion, go back to your sad lives in your nice (and no-doubt “Yes”-voting) suburbs, Margaret Court and Professor Parkinson (and the rest of you).  Even after the big news today about the “Yes” case winning the plebiscite, you can sleep assured tonight that homophobia is alive and kicking (and spitting) in the non-Anglo (and especially) non-Anglo and poor suburbs. 

As ever, the rich get the poor to do their dirty work for them.  Ruling-class Anglo homophobes who seemingly have conscripted an informal army of non-Anglos, and especially their youth, to be their storm troopers for policing public morality (and T-shirt sizing) is just the latest twist to the tale.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Real estate bubbles, tree changers and cultural “negative gearing”

If the peak of the US stock-market bubble of the 1920s was the time when hotel bell-boys everywhere were overheard exchanging stock-market hot-tips, then the equivalent moment in Australian real estate will be when the word “investment” (in connection with it) is drained of all nuance.  That is, anyone who has bought anything at any price – lemon or not – has made, or is on their way to making, a killing.  Oh wait, that’s already happened, at least in Melbourne and Sydney – and if the party there is over, no one appears to be getting out in a hurry – yet.   But contra to Andrew P Street, Melbourne and Sydney are just the visible tip of a nation-deep iceberg, on which several generations of renters are foundering.  And on their   our  shoulders rests  disproportionately  a huge trove of cultural (as opposed to monetary) capital.

Back in money-land, there’s a name for everyone’s-a-winner “investment” that requires no special skill, timing or luck:  Ponzi scheme.  Of course, not quite everyone is a winner – (we) renters are the perceived suckers – and at the other end, not all “winners” are equal:  the earlier one has bought real estate, the bigger one’s winnings, usually. 

It is a shame, I think, that renters (here, not including me) tend to accept their individual lots, as one of the mandatory suckers, rather than collectively assert their market (or voting) power to its fullest potential (that said, for a certain strata of renters, including me, it is already “game on”; see below).  Renters may not be a necessary ingredient for every flip-for-capital-gain – and the more than trifling number of vacant investment properties attests to this – but if every, or even many, investment properties were vacant, the prospects for capital gain would evaporate.  Of course, everyone needs a roof over their heads, so limiting renters’ effective choice in withdrawing from this market. 

There is more than one way to skin a cat here, however – and I believe that a chunk of we lumpen-renters are one our way to conspiring to send a powerful market signal, even if this has been done perhaps unconsciously and involves what I’ll call the econo-cultural (as opposed to monetary) sphere.  This phrase is not a neologism, but I’m using it here in specific counterpoint to the phrase “culture industries” et al – which, if not oxymoronic, fails to account for (and here to invoke the same parlance) creative consumption – that is, where and how people like me spend their time dreaming, gleaning and fossicking.

Living well outside of the big smoke/s for the main reason of (much) cheaper rent (plus I didn’t have a job in Melbourne to detain me), I have spent three years in a box seat to take the national econo-cultural temperature.  As I presaged above, there are ripples to urban real-estate inflation that are felt well outside the commuter belts of Melbourne and Sydney.  Big-city (or even second-string) property-owners whose careers or life-stage allow it thus cash-in and sell-up, to go shopping with their hard-currency bonanza in regional locations where lived was lived in, and so real-estate was traditionally bought and sold for, trusty “pesos”.  This domestic “migration”, driven by real-estate arbitrage, tends to be mono-cultural, and is a potent – and perhaps under-appreciated – factor in spreading the cheer (or misery, if you’re a renter) of the urban real-estate boom far and wide.  And in turn, a definitely under-appreciated cultural phenomenon – and not in a good way.

The net econo-cultural upshot in 2017 is that property prices in all but the direst of dire country towns are actually quite expensive, thereby preventing, for at least the last decade, cultural rejuvenation by artist/intellectual types attracted by the local “peso” economy and social matrix (and moving there with only pesos in their pockets).

Artist/intellectual types who rent are thus pretty much stuck in their present real-estate rut, urban or regional, with no better alternative.  Fitzroy/Darlinghurst garrets are long gone, of course, for committed bohemians wanting to culturally invest in their locale, but more recently, so are grungy outer suburbs and even white-bread country towns. 

If you’ve ever wondered why Australian intellectual life itself has been stuck in a mediocre rut for at least the past decade, you now have the answer – there is no “fringe” to escape to any more, and thus no liquidity in the cultural and consumption mix.   There is only urban vapidity and cupidity – a monoculture of greed that trumps, with spades, the much-vaunted big-city multi-culture, both at home and away.  In the cities, hyper-consumption converges and finds its own level as teenage gangs invade ordinary suburban homes to steal trophy cars for a ride to nowhere – an even more sliced-and-diced undercutting of Uber at its own algorithmic game, if you like.

Meanwhile, in the regions, a different sort of invasion and consumption convergence is happening.  A vanguard of (Anglo-Celtic Australian) culture-deaf, real-estate arbitrageurs – as opposed to refugees, like me – slowly spread across the nation like a cane-toad swarm.   Though self-fancied and styled as “tree changers”, they are on a mission to re-invent their new locales and environments.  But rather than resulting in a heady – and not always comfortable, it must be noted – admixture of bohemia with old-school country, these newcomers come to conquer, not to settle. 

“Tree changers” need, and bring, sophisticated weaponry to achieve this, of course – with their killer advantage, one to which about nine out of every ten old-timer locals will swoon or reluctantly succumb, being the middlebrow “urban” café.  Believe it or not, these are still new enough in many country towns, and the locals so hitherto unaccustomed to pure consumption for its own sake, that a newly opened café, complete with brown interior tonings, in one’s town achieves a social revolution – changing the town’s ~150 year-old social fabric almost overnight to an all-encompassing, gimlet-eyed (and anti-social) dollars-and-cents ledger.  That is, into a matrix the “tree changers” can effortlessly and comfortably assimilate – not least because they spored and sooled it.              

There is some hope here, however – what I like to think of as a form of cultural “negative gearing”; a collective action by boho renters.  Taking a leaf out of the property investor playbook, we selectively keep vacant some of our cultural properties, and so starve the market of stock.  This can work wherever you live. The aim, of course, is to accumulate private cultural capital in the long-term.  As we quietly do this, the hyper-consumption economy will eventually burn itself out – with one urban home invasion too many, and no country towns left to colonise with middlebrow cafés.  When that day comes, culture, sweet culture, will be the most valuable roof above all our heads, and floor beneath your – and not mine – humbled lives.   

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Death, taxes and the inter-generational minefield

In the good old days – up to c.1979 – death and taxes in Australia were not merely the twin certainties in life; they were coupled together in a way which led to a clutch of secondary assumptions about wealth accumulation, holding (or not), and dispersal/transfer within average families.  State death (and gift) duties placed a kind of glass ceiling on capital gains, particularly over family homes and other unproductive real estate (i.e. that was mostly or entirely vacant).  Unproductive assets would hence tend not to spiral up in value because, even if – and in those days it was a big “if” – the acquirer “won” the game of speculation, there would be an eventual but (for most) inevitable day of reckoning with both grim-reapers.  For the middle-classes, at least, the taxman would take a heavy cut (although the wealthy could more easily sidestep death duties).       

This situation led to a virtuous circle in and for middle-class Australia.  Productive investments were more or less neutral for estate-planning (being taxed in both life and death), while spending one’s surplus wealth in retirement was gently encouraged – and here I mean actually spending it, as opposed to locking it up in unproductive real estate, such as renovations.  On the other side of the ledger – from the perspective of the adult children of the retirees – there was a distinct lack of angst about all this, in a way that today seems almost inconceivable.  But in days before real-estate price inflation became rampant – and a present-day inter-generational minefield, of which more about soon – it really was this elegantly simple.  The younger folk bought their own houses without reference to, or handouts from, their elders.  That they could afford to do this was, in turn, largely due to a thriving real (as opposed to real-estate) economy – when, once upon a time, retirees actually spent.

Since the 1980s, a countervailing vicious circle has taken hold.  Real-estate inflation has fed off the peculiarities within capital gains taxes (CGT), first introduced in 1985, and a national regime very different to the old death duties ones.  CGT has always exempted the family home and has, since 1999, generally been levied at a much lighter rate than income taxes.  Speculating (as it was once called, or “investing” as it is now more usually known) in unproductive or negative-income real estate has thus become a no-brainer for many.  Expensive home renovations, meanwhile, have become a similarly vacuous quasi-"bank" for both storing and flaunting wealth – a curious phenomenon that surely no 1950s futurist could have conceived of.  This was a decade when cutting-edge renovations meant an indoor toilet (fancy!) and a fresh coat of paint indoors every twenty years or so.  Plus, if you were really serious about keeping up with the Joneses in the 1950s, there was also a must-have accessory – an Albert Namatjira print hanging on the lounge-room wall. 

In 2016, there has been a ground-up re-writing of the middle-class former rule-book from the death-duties era about wealth accumulation, holding (or not), and dispersal/transfer within the family.   The young (and not so young) have become supplicants, while the old – baby boomers and older – have become hoarders.  When increasing life-expectancy in thrown into this mix, the outcome truly, as the saying goes, is on for young and old.

“Spending the kids’ inheritance” is usually said in a tongue-and-cheek way that belies its modern complexities, if not de facto impossibility.  This loose phrase would not seem to apply to money that is or could be got from unlocking the capital in the family home – if this is seen as “spending” money at all, it is of the serious, non-discretionary type; viz for entering aged-care, etc.  So the family home’s value is largely sacrosanct from discretionary spending – or properly hoarded, you might say – despite much of this store of value usually being an intrinsic windfall.    Retirees’ surplus spending money will thus mostly come from other sources – primarily investments.  However, because these monies are, on the whole, lightly taxed, particularly if inside superannuation, there is also a disincentive to spending them, compared to the good old days of death duties.   A tendency to “bad” hoarding, or miserliness, is thus structurally encouraged. 

While the degree of this will vary with the personality of each retiree – and so it is very hard to quantify on macro-scale – the prevalence of this type of hoarding is undoubtedly masked by what I call pseudo-spending:  on renovations to the family home, and perhaps also, more controversially, on staying on for one’s twilight years as a single or couple in a large family home (or a modest family home on a large or otherwise windfall value-increased block of land).  The latter scenario involves deep emotional factors, as well as complex economic rationalities, mainly to do with age-pension eligibility and aged-care bonds. 

But for all this, the matter of retirees’ discretionary spending in the real economy should not be overlooked. If this spending is perversely light – which seems to me to be the case – then “the kids’ inheritance” indeed comes to the fore, precisely because it is not sufficiently spent.  The adult “kids” (apart from those who work in the tax-advantaged real-estate and renovation industries) thus have fewer and less well-paid jobs (and pay more than their fair share of taxes along the way).  Meanwhile, real-estate prices continue to inflate, largely driven by the tax system. 

Here, you may still think that this situation will sooner or later resolve itself, and happily for all.  The kids will eventually get their inheritance – and the hoardier their parents were, the bigger the kids’ windfall will be, naturally.  But these are largely uncharted inter-generational waters. 

As well as the present Xer-and-younger (born on/after 1 July 1962, by my calculation) generations being, on average, poorer than their parents, now and probably also at death, longer life-expectancy is starting to see inheritances now commonly delivered when the “kids” are in their seventies (if not, although still rarely, even older).   For baby boomers – on average (much) richer than their Depression-child parents, despite the latter’s frugality – this may mean that the beach-house upgrade comes, annoyingly, a few years later than would have been ideal.

For retirement-age Xers-and-younger however, the timing of the inheritance is of much greater fiscal significance, particularly if they do not – ahem – yet have significant real-estate equity.   For such seventy-somethings, an inheritance may well be a case of Too Much, Too Late:  a disruption to receipt of the age-pension (if that even still exists for seventy-somethings from 2032) until the inheritance is spent on first-home buying, which real-estate may in turn be occupied for a only brief time before an aged-care bond comes knocking.  That said, here I may be privileging Xer hardship above baby boomer stresses.  With thousands of baby boomers now turning seventy every week, who am I to minimise the existential dread many must be feeling at this milestone; still beach-house bridesmaids in Blairgowrie (and Pittwater), and watching the biological clock ticking on their inheritance-dependent close-ups in Portsea (and Palm Beach)?

In summary, my message to all those born before 1 July 1962 is:  please spend (as baby boomer Colin Stephen puts it, with a visceral spit) your kids’ inheritance.  That is, spend it on anything but real-estate.  And especially, don’t financially “help” your kids to get into a late-stage bubble market in real-estate – this diverts dollars away from the real economy, and so the chances are it depresses your kids’ wages and job prospects, if not also their lives in total.  No doubt many of you privately like the idea of your kids as anxious supplicants, whether before or after your death.  If nothing else, this is presumably a psychological pay-off for the vague spectre that haunted your own outwardly-affluent childhood; that of your (now very-old or deceased) parents’ frugality demons from their own inter-war childhoods.  But if you must, property-hoard away, boomers – you can renovate your way to property nirvana and tax-less fiscal immortality, but you can’t hide from the other grim reaper.
  • NB: this post was edited and expanded at 1:45pm AEST 30 Nov 2016.

Haiku of reflection for home renovators

Once-white, mottled old
shade-cloth mirrored in pool gleams
like polished concrete

- Paul Watson


Thursday, September 29, 2016

South Australia was asking for it, says PM Turnbull

The recent, and ongoing, severe storms in South Australia have, of course, been accompanied by equally severe blasts of hot air from Canberra, with PM Malcolm Turnbull, Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg, and – curiously – independently-minded (or so I had thought) Adelaide-resident politician Nick Xenophon being prominent wind-instruments here.

Not living in South Australia, and so not directly affected by these twin barrages, I do not want to play the victim-in-the-eye-of-the-storm card on their behalf.  I am sympathetic, but that’s almost beside the point, from afar.  At ground zero, there are lots of emotions going round almost randomly in these situations, which perhaps explains the straw of blame that Nick Xenophon has chosen to cling onto.  (As it happens, I also lived through an 8-hour blackout yesterday, but that’s another, very local and minor story.)

What I’m actually angry about is thus not the (media) storm heaped upon the (real) storm, as an ill-timed double whammy.  Rather, it’s the uncanny – and obscene – similarity between South Australia and a rape victim in all this. 

The PM Turnbull (et al) line is, quite simply “She was asking for it, flaunting her svelte, low-emissions (40% renewable) figure like a Vegas stripper.  Or like uncovered meat, if you prefer the feline analogy.  In either case, under this logic South Australia got what she deserved.  That is, a shafting by moralising puritans with their pants around their ankles, who in their own minds rationalise their thrustings as benignly teaching her a valuable lesson.  Viz that in future, by modestly dressing herself in a carbon-saturated sackcloth of coal-fired electricity, she will, oh so generously and Praise the Lords of Global Warming, be spared a repeat rape.

But does the PM Turnbull (et al) line have a slight skerrick of scientific basis?  The AEMO has, according to two out of three ABC TV (7pm News and 7:30 Report) reports this evening denied that there was any link between the state-wide blackout and South Australia’s choice of electricity-generation mix (or “attire”, to continue the analogy).  The third report said that AEMO was still investigating the cause.  This hedging and dallying is revealing – of an ugly truth.

South Australia plainly does have a problem with its electricity, and that’s the Victorian interconnector.  The hyperbolic, if mercifully short-lived price hike in South Australia of a few months ago, which resulted from the Victorian interconnector being down for “maintenance” well demonstrates the power relativities here, in both senses.  I would have thought that such “maintenance” would have been well-flagged in advance to those who would bear its brunt, so allowing South Australia to put other contingencies in place.  But perhaps I’m wrong here – and in mid-winter, South Australia couldn’t even think about covering herself briefly with her own non-renewable electricity, as she was too busy sashaying around to notice the letter in her box from grim Victoria, telling her what was in store if she didn’t get her act together.

It was, fittingly enough, protecting the Victorian interconnector (and so stopping the blackout spreading to brown-coal lickin’, and here actually morally-virtuous Victoria) that seems to have been the reason that the blackout went entirely state-wide.  South Australia, in “aggressively” seeking renewable electricity, has thus found itself a lightning rod for a whole set of nasties, worse perhaps the worst meteorological storm.  In trying to be a responsible adult on this planet, and so to mitigate climate change, South Australia has found itself to be at the whim of a sick-puppy Victoria, playing dog in its odiferous brown-coal manger:  “So now you want our dirty electricity do ya – so beg for it, whore”.  

The power imbalance behind the Victorian interconnector is, of course, an inconvenient political truth, meaning that Victoria’s dirty secret can’t be directly acknowledged by PM Turnbull (et al).  Instead, there is a displacement of the perverse moral superiority Victoria gets out of its sado-electrical relationship with South Australia.  Rather than being seen as a weaker party to a contract who just maybe, and for once, could be cut a bit of slack, South Australia right now is completely up Slut Creek without a Briquette, which is exactly where her type always end up, isn’t it, Malcolm?

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Song title:  “A walk on the monopoly board (using real money)”

A salute to the GenX highly-educated precariat* (with apologies to John Schurmann and Redgum)

Mum and Dad and Caro came to the auction round the corner
It was a long way from the quote

My place was next to be tarted up and sold
And baby-boomer neighbours lined the footpaths as we* cringed against the fence
This photo from the auction shows us shocked and scarred and lined

God help me – I was already forty-nine

And can you tell me, tradie, why I still can’t get to sleep?
And why the sound of auction clapping chills me to my feet?
And what’s this regret that comes and stays, can you tell me why it grinds?

God help me – I was already forty-nine

           * Or is it only me?

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Newsflash:  Gold Coast car salesman is not a wanker

For the last six months, the Australian newspaper has been running an intermittent-but-otherwise-red-hot, vindictive campaign to discredit David Ridsdale (1).  Their motivation for doing so seems plain enough – to silence one of George Pell’s chief critics; and the timing of the first three successive headline explosions has been exquisite in this regard – wheeling out David Ridsdale’s past when the public heat would otherwise be on George Pell’s present, per his Royal Commission evidence. 

As to why a loss-making newspaper would allow itself to be used as a blatant PR mouthpiece for such a dubious – but deep-pocketed – cause, you’ll have to ask Rupert or the Vatican.  In any event, my interest here is less in the tawdry underlying economics, but in the even more tawdry extremes to which a story must be stretched, so as to be able to flog the sponsor’s message, disguised, and so unnoticed, among all the lurid bathos.   

When I say “unnoticed”, I am not referring only to the Australian’s mass audience (if that is not an oxymoron).  The Fairfax Press and the ABC (/Media Watch) have been strangely reticent to call the Australian out on the anti-David Ridsdale campaign.  I acknowledge one substantial reason for this reticence – to do justice to this issue, post 7 May 2016 at least, there is no alternative but to tread on the finer feelings (or worse) of a man who here I’ll refer to as the Gold Coast car salesman.  I accept that this is a flimsy pseudonym in the circumstances, and that what I write about him here is deeply personal, unsolicited by him, and the words of a complete stranger.  That said, I wish him no harm, and sincerely hope that, by pointing out how he has been re-victimised by the Australian, this opinion piece takes away one, rather than adds another, layer of his victimisation.
More in the “it goes without saying” category, I express the same sentiments in respect of David Ridsdale.  Quite possibly, adding more oxygen to this story, from whatever “side”, is the last thing he wants at this moment.  In the interests of full disclosure, I also note that, while this piece is also unsolicited by him, he is not quite a complete stranger – either he or one of his brothers was my Grade 1 classmate/playmate at St Alipius Primary School in Ballarat in 1971, but in any event, I have not seen or been in any other form of communication with David Ridsdale since 1971.


Where to start this story?  The Australian’s biggest story in their (ongoing?) PR vendetta series so far – a 7 May 2016 weekend magazine article by Trent Dalton – was centred on the abuse of the Gold Coast car salesman by David Ridsdale in 1984, when the former was 12 and the latter 18.  The article’s title, “Chain Reaction”, evinced a broader concern, however:  what happens when (male) child abuse-victim becomes an adult abuser of children?  Hetty Johnston, a professional spokesperson for child abuse-victims was quoted on some of the nuances here.   Otherwise, Trent Dalton’s interest in the theme was limited to a “chain reaction” of two – starting with David Ridsdale’s childhood abuse by his uncle, priest Gerald Ridsdale, up to 1981, and ending, firmly (if by implication only) with the future Gold Coast car salesman’s childhood abuse by David Ridsdale in 1984. 

However, there was also a passing mention that Gerald Ridsdale also claimed to have been sexually abused as a child.  Should this story, in fairness, start there?  (Trent Dalton obviously thought not.)  Or if Gerald Ridsdale’s rapist (now presumably deceased) was himself abused – as would seem likely – back further still, and so on?

Personally, apart from the evidentiary diminishing returns, I don’t think that much is to be gained from tracing such “chain reactions” well back.  Even if Gerald Ridsdale’s childhood rapist was still alive, and healthy enough to be successfully prosecuted and appropriately sentenced, this would seem to be a mere footnote in the scheme of Gerald Ridsdale’s crimes.

Quite possibly, Gerald Ridsdale himself would regard my dismissive approach here as an injustice and double-standard, saying to himself (and/or to anyone who cares) that (a) he would never have become an abuser but for his own abuse, and (b) he would not have offended so prolifically and for so long, had his own abuser been charged at the “usual” life-stage, per the most common age-of-reporting scenario is when the victim is middle-aged and probably at a low-point, mental-health wise (i.e. in Gerald Ridsdale’s case, c. 1980).  To which I would reply curtly: “You had your chance then”, and c.1980, you blew it on David Ridsdale (among others).  (There are also obvious large differences of scale between the offending of the two Ridsdales, but to go down this path would be to marginalise the victims of once-off paedophiles, so I won’t.)  


We shall start in 1984, then, when, as I’ve said, the future Gold Coast car salesman, then 12, was sexually abused on two or three occasions by David Ridsdale, then 18.  I emphatically think that it should be unnecessary to go into the details of this, which Trent Dalton’s article does, with some apparent relish. 

On this, I think that it is a generally brave act for a victim of childhood sexual abuse to step-forward by name, and so waive their otherwise cast-iron right of anonymity (and doubly so for a male), but I query the collateral price they often pay, in terms of their abuse being graphically described.  While this is presumably necessary in the text of court judgements convicting and sentencing paedophiles (although I often detect a sense of gratuitous voyeurism even in the penning of these), Trent Dalton’s resort to lurid detail is initially inexplicable. 

Additionally, Dalton also lets us into the Gold Coast car salesman’s otherwise-private adult sexual peccadillo, which, to be fair, does depend on our contextual knowledge of some detail about his childhood abuse.  By itself, I don’t have the same reservations about this adult-peccadillo disclosure – a fact that my headline, of course, robustly attests to.  Here, I should mention my philosophy that, should mortifyingly personal (and adult) material “go” public, the lighter the touch, the better.   

Plainly, Dalton’s philosophy is different; he thinks that adult sexual peccadillos should be milked for tragedy, not comedy.  But Dalton needs to set up the Gold Coast car salesman in this (unhelpful to the victim, I would have thought) searing light.   The bare facts of the police-station and courtroom sequel to the 1984 abuse, were they to speak for themselves, would barely add up to a story, whether in 1994 or 2016, much less today’s excoriating, drip-fed public scandal (and private/lurid tragedy). 

In short, David Ridsdale is indeed, as Gerard Henderson loves to put it at every opportunity, a “convicted paedophile” – meaning that as an adult (although at 18, barely) he was, on 5 October 1995, convicted of the indecent assault of the future Gold Coast car salesman over events dating back to 1984.   In fact, David Ridsdale pleaded guilty to all this, and received a good behaviour bond, in large part apparently because of the fact that he himself was a victim of his uncle (although his age at the time and his prospect for rehabilitation presumably also worked in favour of this sentence). 

This sentence was the lightest possible one in the circumstances.  If you (a) haven’t read Trent Dalton’s article, and (b) haven’t paid much attention to mine so far, you may think “Aha!” at this point:  David Ridsdale got a slap on the wrist, while the Gold Coast car salesman got a life-sentence.  And thus, no wonder that the Australian is arcing up here:  Pell’s denouncer has dirty-linen of his own, in receiving a cushy sentence, for an ultra-relevant crime to his present-day reputation. 

Actually, the Australian has said no such thing.  While it repeatedly stresses the general shade of David Ridsdale’s dirty-linen, Trent Dalton’s article is very careful to not even hint that his good behaviour bond was an unjustly light sentence.  Instead, Trent Dalton manages to insinuate that David Ridsdale’s ­guilty plea robbed the Gold Coast car salesman of justice; apparently he only found out about this only recently, having assumed for two decades (and Trent Dalton is careful to imply this only) that his case against David Ridsdale had been quietly dropped, for some strange or sinister reason, ­by the Ballarat police (an agency that the Gold Coast car salesman in the mid-1990s had already found to be quite unhelpful personally). 

So, to get Trent Dalton’s story straight here, David Ridsdale’s ­guilty plea, far from sparing the Gold Coast car salesman the need to travel and re-live his abuse in an interstate courtroom, a kilometre or two from the scene of the crimes, instead exacerbated his childhood abuse, by thwarting his chance for closure.  While David Ridsdale, of course, had something to potentially gain (2) from his ­guilty plea, to turn this around, as Trent Dalton does, as a re-victimisation of the Gold Coast car salesman by David Ridsdale  – who under Dalton’s logic, somehow had the Ballarat police working under his thumb – is perverse, in my opinion.

But you can be the judge here.  Is David Ridsdale a criminal mastermind, a man who only the Australian is brave enough to call out?  Do Fairfax and the ABC actively still hide David Ridsdale’s murky past, despite it being all over Google (although without any hint of the victim’s identity until very recently) since at least 2002 (3), because acknowledging it would wholly rescind his bona-fides as a George Pell critic, and possibly also rescind the bona-fides of all George Pell critics, as co-conspirators with David Ridsdale?  This is the Australian’s reverse Samson-and-Goliath bottom-line (editorially, if not also in accounts-receivable). 

To be blunt, I have no doubt as to whom I would rather have teaching or baby-sitting my (hypothetical) children out of David Ridsdale or George Pell – the “convicted paedophile” wins over the supposed moral paragon.  No doubt the Gold Coast car salesman sees this differently, but here I suggest that the New Testament may have some interesting and relevant opinions on this dilemma.  This hypothetical aside, I suggest that if anyone honestly believes that George Pell has done more to arrest clerical paedophilia in Australia than David Ridsdale, warts and all, then they are one sick puppy.  Although such sick puppies are probably still in a moral class above those who gang-up and demonise David Ridsdale simply for the money.  I’ll leave it to you to decide who is in which moral category here.  

In a strange way, I’m actually with the Gold Coast car salesman c. 2015 (when he had a breakdown) all the way on one aspect – when Trent Dalton, Gerard Henderson, and John Ferguson have had an uninvited and unwelcome wank right next to me (viz, reading the Australian at breakfast, if you must know), for taking such a grotesque liberty with little-old me, every time I now see their names in public now, for their gutless temerity, I shake with a near-bottomless rage.   And if, reading this now, you feel that I have also wanked right across little-old-your own virtue, I’m terribly sorry – but to this I plead guilty also.  The “chain reaction” goes on, I’m afraid.

Disclosure:  Paul Watson is (A) a wanker, who (B) would be an appalling salesman, who would not be able to sleep at night unless he had informed every potential customer of each potential defect in the merchandise.  He also (C) has a strong personal belief in Hell, otherwise known as the Gold Coast, or in Paul Watson’s parochial moral compass, “Vatican II” – both Vaticans being places where anything and everything is for sale, and very little is real.   

Update 23 May 2016

I’ve just become aware that the ABC – perhaps stung by Gerard Henderson’s hysterical cry of “censorship” on 12 February 2016 # decided to play “me too” with the Gold Coast car salesman’s story, on 10 May 2016.

# “Meanwhile The Age — plus the rest of Fairfax Media plus the ABC — has chosen to censor the news that Pell’s chief accuser, David Ridsdale, is himself a convicted paedophile. David Ridsdale pleaded guilty in 1984 [sic] to having sexually assaulted a 12 year old boy when aged 18.

This was revealed by John Ferguson in The Australian on 21 December 2015. But the Pell-haters in Fairfax Media and at the taxpayer funded public broadcaster seem to have determined that this news is not fit to print or broadcast”.

Personally, I would have thought Gerard Henderson’s (and George Pell’s) connections with the late, paedophile-protecting, and ultra-conservative Bishop James O’Collins (a story that no mainstream media organisation wants to touch, despite being well-enough documented) are a much bigger case of “censorship” than David Ridsdale’s lone teenage crime.

But on the topic of (arguably) minor crimes, I also note two errors of fact by Gerard Henderson.  The first, in the above quote, should read “1996”, not “1984”.  The effect of this error is to separate in time David Ridsdale’s disclosures as perpetrator from those as victim.  In fact, of course, these were at much, if not exactly, the same time (1994-95) – a point that deserves taking the time to stop and think "what if?".  What if David Ridsdale had never made his dual disclosures to the police, re the Gold Coast car salesman and Gerald Ridsdale?  I suggest that the outcome here in 2016 would have been:  (a) David Ridsdale would today be a privately troubled middle-aged man, but not a “convicted paedophile”, (b) the Gold Coast car salesman would today also be a privately troubled middle-aged man (still depressed that the Ballarat police had fobbed him off about David Ridsdale in 1994, but at least having had two decades since without even hearing mention of the name of David Ridsdale).  Oh, and (c) Gerald Ridsdale would still be a free man – and quite probably, if not still offending in his 80s, having racked up hundreds more victims in his 60s and 70s.  In other words, there would have been one, and only one, big winner – be careful what you wish for, people.

The second error of fact by Gerard Henderson makes me wonder whether it, and the error above, were actually intentional.  This one could not possibly be a typo.  In his 21 May 2016 column, Henderson wrote:

Also, the royal commission declined to question David Ridsdale (one of Pell’s chief critics) on Ridsdale’s pedophile conviction in 1995 — revealed in February by The Australian”.

Here, the “February” reference can only mean Henderson’s 12 February 2016 column  – as quoted above (first quote)  – which prominently referred to John Ferguson on 21 December 2015 as actually breaking the news.  But most Australian readers, of course, would not also read this blog, or otherwise take the trouble to look back for Henderson’s February reference, so allowing his error, as to who "broke" (3)  the story, to "stick".  Has John Ferguson – who as “Victorian Political Editor” was on a plainly extra-curricular assignment in the first place – had some post 7 May 2016 reputation-saving second-thoughts about his own complicity in the “chain reaction” that his December article started, and so Gerard Henderson has kindly stepped in to muddy the first link in the chain?


1.      See:

“Pell accuser indecently assaulted boy at YMCA”, John Ferguson (Victorian Political Editor, Melbourne), Australian 21 December 2015.

 “Media Watch Dog: Banging the (loaded) Drum on the ABC”, Gerard Henderson,
Australian website, uploaded 12 February 2016, 3:45pm.

“Ghosts of the past bring horror back to life 30 years on” and “Chain Reaction”, both by Trent Dalton, Australian 7 May 2016.

 “Sex abuse royal commission fails test of fairness”, Gerard Henderson, Australian 21 May 2016.

2.    This was not a one-way bet.  If he was more concerned about avoiding the “convicted paedophile” tag than the increased possibility of a custodial sentence, David Ridsdale would have been well-advised to plead not ­guilty, and take his chances with a jury.   Had he a criminal-defence budget in the realms of the six or seven-figure sums that the Catholic Church has routinely spent in recent years defending its in-house paedophiles, I suggest that David Ridsdale would have been a fool to plead guilty.

3.    The Australian dredges up some old news and proclaims a "scoop".

Monday, April 18, 2016

On chastity vs hands down deep pockets

Celibacy is a “gift” to the Catholic priesthood; a key part of a grand vow and voluntary choice for life (usually).  That for gay Catholics celibacy is just baldly assumed should be an outrage.  Such individuals are deemed to be in a kind of second-rate priesthood; entered into involuntarily, and with zero trappings or institutional support.

Of course, this has long been a successful recruitment strategy for the priesthood and convents; for centuries, it was almost a no-brainer.  When puberty made it clear the depth and type of one's sexual identity, and assuming one wanted to remain a good Catholic, to enter the priesthood was a free first-class ticket for life (and beyond) while the only non-sinful alternative was a bleak, hard road.

This balance has now been torn asunder, of course. For the last few decades, very few gay Catholic adolescents in the West have succumbed to the Church’s bluff.  When one alternative in a binary “choice” involves demonstrable psychological distress for life, discarding the very binary framework, and instead entering into a life of “sin” is, I suggest, a profoundly moral decision.  To have taken the easy road would be to encourage blackmail; and ditto for the hard road.

This is at the heart of the Catholic Church’s inability to deal with its deep sickness within.  Without substantial fresh flows into the priesthood, the whole system quickly becomes illiquid.  The small numbers of new seminarians are much more likely to be heterosexual – for whom the category of second-rate celibate does not apply, and so in general are more fickle in their belonging.  Incumbent gay priests are thereby doubly deprived of young gay men to have uncomplicated intra-workplace dalliances with (one of the tacit fringe benefits of the priesthood, it would seem).

This crisis actually has already passed; with the paedophilia epidemic of the 1970s and 1980s being a grim marker of the transition period.  Akin perhaps to a butterfly flapping its wings causing quite something else, the modern gay rights era has a causal relationship to the paedophilia epidemic of my childhood.

To attribute blame here would be ludicrous, I hope it goes without saying. The thinking-in-centuries Catholic Church was caught wrong-footed and on the hop.  Equally, this rupture explains why the Church must clamp down so heavily on even a small gesture of homophilia within its ranks.  Loosely speaking, the present-day proliferation of out gay men and women is now a sort of rival priesthood to the Church, albeit one without earthly trappings built-in to the job description. 

Though middle-age gay ex-Catholics are only a part of this diverse mob, their presence as secular traitors – who should have been priests – has been a singular, and quite personal, tipping-point.  My age cohort bore the brunt of the paedophilia epidemic, as priests on a sinking ship took out their fears and frustrations, indiscriminately.  In the 1970s and 80s, it was probably a desperate, double-or-nothing recruitment strategy, to keep some semblance of business as usual.  The hope at the time must have been that, for gay Catholic adolescents with strong stomachs and love of hypocrisy – which is to say, future leadership material – the old closet bargain was still on.

However, few, if any, of my generation bought this – leaving the Church in a lurch.  Its human capital now in probably terminal decline, it has had no choice but to focus its efforts on the other sort of capital – money.  As this focus alone would seem crass, the Church also kept some moral irons in the fire.  Chief among these is that old chestnut, the virtue of the celibate closet for gay Catholics, and the relatively-new, corollary evil of the “gay lobby”.  As a PR strategy for a tarnished institution, this is beyond ridiculous.  But for an organisation now bereft of a large cohort of middle-aged leaders (or leaders in waiting), I can understand the logic and attraction of this strategy for the ageing keepers of an objectively rudderless real-estate empire and cash-box.

Like inbred third-world oil-sheikhs, the Church both can afford the very best lawyers and PR lackeys (some of whom purport to be journalists), and indeed nothing less would compensate for the imbecility of the client.  Accordingly, the paedophilia epidemic grew a substantial industry of hangers-on in recent decades – loyal retainers, if you like, with proven strong stomachs (through representing guilty paedophiles, and discrediting and vilifying victims). 

Having such loyal retainers, just because the task one initially engaged them for dries up should not mean that they are let go.  This is the final, delicious irony – that the Catholic Church has now effectively outsourced its homophobia – a new and growing line of work – to expensive professionals.  The emergence of this (secular and self-perpetuating) “priesthood” was perhaps inevitable – a liking for first-class trappings, and a lack of moral scruples allows a pleasing congruence between geriatric cash-box keeper and up-and-coming cash-box donee. 

Or put another way, the old game of blackmail successfully continues in another guise.  The sexuality of this new outsourced “priesthood” scarcely matters, as long as they follow the homophobic script.  It is easy money, I suppose.  But for me, and I’m quite sure for a disproportionate and growing number of my generation also, the hard road – staying celibate from the financial tentacles of the Catholic Church – has never looked so attractive.             

Monday, December 14, 2015

Peter Ryan, last of the Alf Conlon-ites

It is a shame that Peter Ryan, who died yesterday aged 92, will probably be remembered as a man of three parts:  young soldier, middle-aged publisher and grumpy old culture-warrior, per the 1993-94 Manning Clark/Soviet Spy controversy.  Actually, his public life really only had one, long act.

I have no doubt that Ryan’s military service in what became PNG during WWII, in some ways, forged the young man.  But it was a Melbourne office military posting to Alf Conlon’s DORCA #, in the later stages of WWII, which gave him a strikingly consistent agenda for the rest of his public life.  While it is unclear who exactly Peter Ryan was a near-lifelong agent for, plainly he was a toxic human being who used his cultural, commercial and official power to destabilise Australian intellectual life over seven decades.  For the most part, he did this smoothly and expertly – but wantonly – leaving little trace of his interventions, but a large penumbra of fallout.

# Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs

The “Was Manning Clark a Soviet Spy?” controversy was hardly subtle or without obvious risk of personal blowback to Ryan – after all, he was Clark’s long-term publisher at MUP, albeit Ryan started there after the “History of Australia” series was first commissioned.  Turning on one of one’s own children (even if s/he is technically a step-child, but brought up by the step-parent from a very young age) is rarely a good look.  So what prompted Ryan to this extreme in September 1993, and why did he wait for two years after Clark’s death to plunge the knife in?

Part of the answer, I believe, is that Ryan earlier had other balls in the air, and wanted to see first how these others would fall, and thus align for posterity.  Most importantly, Ryan’s lifelong mission was to sanitise from the record the corrupting influence, to the present-day (if nebulously so), of Alf Conlon’s WWII DORCA.  While this unit today is principally known for its connections to high-end political intrigue in 1975 (per dismissal of Gough Whitlam by John Kerr, another DORCA alumnus) and contemporaneous vaudeville (the Ern Malley hoax), it deserves to be much-better known, through its successor ASOPA ##, as the principal architect of Australian government Aboriginal policies in the 1950s.  And probably ever since – that is, if the machinations of Peter Ryan to suppress the DORCA/ ASOPA/Aboriginal policy connection are interpreted as significant in themselves.  It was only in early 1993, with the death of Paul Hasluck, that Ryan felt the coast was clear, as it were, to change his game from defensive subterfuge to open, peripheral attack.    

## Australian School of Pacific Administration

Paul Hasluck notably loathed Alf Conlon; equally Ryan never said a word against him.  As Hasluck saw it, this was principally because of Conlon’s loose-cannon role at DORCA during WWII, but later on, Hasluck either never realised – or at least never admitted – that ASOPA, secretly but very effectively, had hugely undermined him as Territories Minister (so notionally also in charge of Commonwealth Aboriginal policy) between 1951 and 1963.

It is here, in influencing Paul Hasluck to never say another public word about Alf Conlon after 1980 (when MUP published Diplomatic Witness), that Ryan’s staggering modus operandi is revealed.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ryan, under the guise of an improbable friendship, groomed the frail and elderly widower Hasluck, flying him to Melbourne to visit Ryan at least four times in 1988-1991, so encouraging Hasluck to take certain facts and opinions to his grave (on the face of it, successfully so).  While Hasluck was not quite the last of that generation who could have, as a senior insider who was not plainly a Conlon-ite, spilled the beans on DORCA/ ASOPA/Aboriginal policy, the last such living domino – Harry Giese – dropped off in 2000, besieged by controversy about his personal responsibility for removing Aboriginal children, per the Stolen Generations. Whatever blame can legitimately be put on Giese here, writing the child-removal policy was not one of them – that was the job of the Canberra bureaucrats, who had a shadowy DORCA and US-military alumnus, Nick Penglase, among them (Penglase also recruited Ryan to DORCA).  Nor was Giese responsible for training the welfare officers who (along with police) performed these removals in the Northern Territory; these officers were, after 1956, ASOPA graduates.

For now, I won’t go into the intricate specifics of how Ryan groomed Hasluck, other than to say that Ryan was surprisingly careless about what he blurted out in public sometimes.   Perhaps this is the inbuilt flaw of a mostly self-educated man, through circumstance elevated to work with Australia’s very best and brightest – in aiming for a breezy camaraderie to compensate for being out of his intellectual death, he instead made some jaw-dropping moves.  

While his grooming of Hasluck is not one of these overt clangers, Ryan’s clumsy attempt to absolve himself from personal responsibility for accepting CIA funds for MUP to publish, in 1969 under John Kerr’s Presidency of Law Asia, a book on – of all things – Asian contract law is revealing.  A furious letter to the editor by that book’s co-author David E Allan [“Clear funds for law book”, Australian 4 February 1999], calling for a retraction and apology from Peter Ryan, was not answered in word or deed, as far as I am aware.  Whoever Ryan (and possibly Conlon too) really worked for – and the CIA appears to be the most likely possibility – plainly did not care about either loyalty in human relationships or plain logical consistency.  Following the party line was all; which ironically made Ryan quite the undisclosed expert, of course, on Manning Clark’s supposed communist infiltration of the Australian academy.

I believe that Manning Clark’s supposed communist influence was also well-timed, in 1993-94, to distract from the otherwise bigger, fresher, and more important Left-Right story of the day; Aboriginal policy, immediately  post-Mabo.  Twenty-two years on, I assume that Peter Ryan died yesterday with a smile on his face – that in seventy years of manufactured disarray in Australian Aboriginal policy, he was never once found out, despite often being quite close to the action.  In case it needs to be spelled out, this disarray has been materially and psychically catastrophic for generations of Indigenous Australians.  It has also been, I suggest, an intellectual vortex for some of our smartest whitefellas; thinking they were boxing away their hardest in the ring of public ideas, when the whole game was always secretly rigged.    

It is now time to start reversing these disastrous 70 years, by telling some home truths, and wiping the smile off the face of the late Peter Ryan, idiot, glove-puppet and traitor.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Mulkearns and ecclesisatical responsibility; paedophilia and the National Civic Council

“Paedophilia is a continuation of office and union politics by other means”

-          Apparent personal motto of Bishop James O’Collins, 1892-1983 

As Gerard Henderson likes to remind us (1), supporting George Pell’s case that he knew nothing about clerical sex abuse in his patch until the early 1990s, the two bishops who Pell worked under during the decades in question (2) were “liberal” in contrast to the conservative Pell.  Ergo, implies Henderson, Pell, despite having senior roles in both dioceses, was plausibly locked out of the information loop by his immediate superiors over two decades (1971-c.1991), regarding paedophile priests. 

It is a strange and far-fetched argument when you think about it.  Pell, whose career plainly prospered under both these men, was according to Henderson nonetheless a victim of office politics when it came to them not sharing certain information.  If so, this was a tickle-with-a-feather, if not downright lucky, type of victimhood for Pell. 

When Mulkearns and Little both retired under a cloud at about the same time, Pell could go from nought to a hundred on the issue; from being (under his own account) almost certainly the last senior cleric in the Ballarat and Melbourne dioceses to know about widespread clerical sex abuse, to being the first senior cleric (in the Melbourne diocese) to do something to address its effects. 

From zero to hero overnight – I am surprised that Henderson doesn’t also add to Pell’s list of victimhood slights by pointing out that Hollywood should have, but hasn’t, already made a movie about Pell’s long decades of unknowing innocence, probably because Hollywood is also infested with “liberals”.  Such a movie would gloriously detail Pell’s resolute fighting fibre when he belatedly learns the truth, and conveniently gets the top job soon after, in a third act that would be wall-to-wall triumph for the underdog Pell, who fought so long and so hard against all odds.  But I digress.

Speaking of the truth, I am surprised that Gerard Henderson’s recent article didn’t bookend the (according to him) weaselly liberal reign of Mulkearns at Ballarat by his conservative, and similarly long-serving predecessor, James O’Collins.  O’Collins was, as I presume Henderson is aware, one of the three founding executives of The Movement in September 1945 (3).  This highly secret anti-communist organisation later morphed into the National Civic Council, which in turn by 1971 had dwindled into something of a shell of its former nuts-and-bolts heyday – keeping communists out of positions of infleunce, particularly in trade unions.  By the eve of Whitlam, the union communist bogeyman was barely a threat; if you believed in these things, communism was by then doing its dirty work more insidiously and nebulously still, via a liberal/left-wing counter-culture, whose agenda included sexual permissiveness.

From the mid-to-late 1960s, this new enemy was always going to be difficult to fight.  Nonetheless, some of The Movement’s younger warriors have risen to present-day positions of power and influence, and in so doing, have rarely if ever given an inch to the liberals; Gerard Henderson and George Pell, for example.  And let’s not forget Australian Prime Minister until recently, Tony Abbott, although he undoubtedly had to make more compromises than his mentor Pell in his rise to the top. 

Were it not for The Movement’s efforts over the decades, I’m sure that we’d now have had communist-mandated Sodom and Gomorrahs on every street corner.  What a terrible thought – a world where the sexual frontier would involve consenting adults with no sexual hang-ups, and not good old-fashioned child abuse behind closed doors, with associated team-bonding and career-enhancing blackmail, by looking through the keyhole.  But again I digress.

Going back to May 1971, James O’Collins was then in seeming good health (4) when he handed over the reins to Mulkearns as Bishop of Ballarat.  O’Collins choosing to throw in the towel at this point would, I think, make a very good opening scene for a quite different Hollywood movie, although one I doubt that Gerard Henderson and George Pell would have the stomach to watch.

This movie’s backstory starts like this:  in September 1945, the young and relatively junior O’Collins was not merely one of three senior clergy co-founders of The Movement – he was also its points man within the Church hierarchy (5) – effectively its founding CEO – although officially he was just its chaplain.  How and why a provincial and relatively junior bishop got this role seems to speak volumes about The Movement’s ethos and modus operandi; it was out of sight, out of mind, as far as the main Church hierarchy was concerned.   Like the 2000s US practice of extraordinary rendition, the Australian and Vatican big-wigs didn’t want to know too much about what O’Collins was getting up to, as long as he delivered the goods.

Funnily enough, torture was a common element in, say, 2000s Egypt (as one country that enthusiastically cooperated with US in delivering/accepting extraordinary rendition) and the 1960s Ballarat diocese under O’Collins.  To be fair, torture was an integral part of the Egyptian-American pact, while perhaps it was only a sideshow for the O’Collins-Vatican pact.

You see, in 1960s Ballarat, O’Collins was a battle-hardened general, who should have been at the peak of his career.  The annoying itch for him, if not sexual, was that infiltrating the unions, and associated malarkey, was fast becoming redundant – and what was an ageing, once high-flying and ambitious man, now forever marooned in the provinces, to do with a day-job that had once been so adrenal? 

The bored O’Collins’creative solution to his career ennui was to foster, over the 1960s, a paedophile network within his diocese.  As you do, apparently.  While O’Collins may or may not have had a personal proclivity for raping chidren en masse, its requirement for the strictest secrecy was plainly a pleasing use for O’Collins of his highly-trained, pre-existing skill set, from The Movement’s cloak-and-dagger heyday.  His skills that otherwise would go rusty. (And wouldn’t that be a crime, he may well have thought.)

There is plenty of information available confirming O’Collins as a knowing paedophile protector, one who was at least as culpable as Mulkearns and Little are/were, on Gerard Henderson’s loaded account.  In leaving O’Collins out of the story, while digging a grave, as it were, for Mulkearns, perhaps Henderson may care to explain what it all means that John Day was promoted by O’Collins after paedophile allegations were known, while conversely, Mulkearns, in the same position, effectively demoted Day to the small parish of Timboon; a surely unprecedented move, at the time if not also now, for a Monsignor.  [NB: I am not defending Mulkearns’ action in this specific respect, only pointing out that it was significantly less culpable, in my opinion, than O’Collins’ craven act in promoting known horrific paedophile John Day].  

At this point, the Hollywood movie really hits its straps.  By early 1971, O’Collins had apparently had enough of running a secret Salo Republic-style child-abuse sideshow (if not main arena) within his diocese.  The secrecy side of it was no doubt fun for him, a stimulating game to oversee, if not also play, but perhaps overall it was becoming all a bit tawdry, especially while outside, the emergent permissive society daily reminded O’Collins that the war against communism that he had signed on for in September 1945 was now essentially lost, or at least hopelessly side-tracked

In 1971, O’Collins thus understandably wanted out – but he and the Vatican were in a quandary:  who could be trusted to take over his job, and not to spill the beans on the sordid sexual empire that O’Collins ran?  A liberal, that’s who.

Mulkearns’ appointment after O’Collins may seem counter-intuitive; they were ideological opponents, after all, and what was to stop Mulkearns spilling the beans, cleaning up the debauched mess he inherited from O’Collins, and so making O’Collins retirement very uncomfortable, at best? (And conversely, Mulkearns’ job perhaps a lot easier, depending on how he played his cards with the Vatican, and vice versa).

This is the big mystery in the movie – and sorry folks, I’m not going to spoil the ending now.  But I will give you some hints about the strange O’Collins-Mulkearns handover.

On Easter Thursday, 11 April 1971, just before Mulkearns took over from O’Collins, the ambitious, and highly-educated young priest George Pell left Europe, and his cosmopolitan student life forever, for workaday Ballarat.  He therefore missed the opportunity to settle in nicely to his first diocesan appointment, at least, under his mentor, O’Collins, and instead had his career left to Mulkearns’ caprices, although in this – and every – respect, the Vatican obviously was Mulkearns’ boss.  In any event, you might think:  “silly George Pell and silly O’Collins for not timing more career overlap between them here?  Or not?  I’ll leave the contents of the rest of this narrative arc to you.

In guessing your own narrative sweep and ending here, you may want to consider a couple of other snippets.  One is that O’Collins got to live on in the imposing bluestone Bishop’s Palace in Ballarat until he died on 25 November 1983; while Mulkearns had to camp out (as Paul Keating may have put it) elsewhere.  What this means as to the power relativities between the retiree and the nominal boss, I’ll up leave to you, as likewise also the fact that George Pell lived with O’Collins in the same Bishop’s Palace in for some years in the early 1980s. 

Finally, to bring up the current Royal Commission, yesterday lawyer Sam Duggan, for Cardinal Pell, said that some words  George Pell allegedly said in 1983 (“Haha I think Gerry’s [Gerald Ridsdale has] been rooting boys again”):

Indeed, Sam Duggan seemed to have a point – that is, unless you know about the obscure concept of ecclesiastical responsibility, a canon law doctrine in which a Bishop is effectively still responsible for a diocesan priest’s actions, even if that priest is sent to another diocese, or even another state.

This is quite undeservedly an obscure doctrine, in my opinion, as it seems to have as many important legal ramifications as the notorious “Ellis defence”.  I only learnt about it this morning when I read this:

Sam Duggan’s “it makes no sense whatsoever” thus in fact makes quite a lot of sense, to me anyway – Ridsdale (among others) was the poisonous gift ("chalice", if you must) that Mulkearns was handed in 1971, and then could never, try as he might, shake off.  Wherever Ridsdale was sent to geographically, he was still Mulkearns’s jurisdictional problem (unless the Vatican laicised Ridsdale, which was notoriously hard to do).   I’ll leave the implications of this doctrine, especially in regard to the consequent motivations two other main players in the Hollywood movie, to you.

Back to 2015, in fact – although I’m not positively sure about this sequence – Sam Duggan had just yesterday heard the above lines about ecclesiastical responsibility in the Royal Commission shortly before he uttered his lame “it makes no sense whatsoever” line. 

You need to start paying more attention, Sam – you will now necessarily have your own role in the great Hollywood movie I have referred to, when you will face your own proverbial cross-examination.  And coming days in the Royal Commission will determine whether that role is career-making or breaking for you.


(1) “Cardinal must receive a fair go at royal commission and in media” Australian 5 December 2015

(2) The now terminally-ill Ronald Mulkearns b. 1930, bishop of Ballarat 1971 to 1997, Pell worked under him from May 1971 to late 1983 or early 1984; and the late Frank Little, Archbishop of Melbourne 1 July 1974 to 16 July 1996, Pell worked under him in a loose sense from 1984, when Pell became rector of Corpus Christi college in Melbourne, and then more firmly from 1986, when the then-Pope, without reference to Little, appointed Pell an auxiliary bishop of Melbourne, until he took over Little’s job in mid-1996.

(3) All  three were senior clergy; the other two were Archbishop Mannix of Melbourne and Cardinal Gilroy of Sydney; see Paul Ormonde, The Movement, p 134.

(4) Though O’Collins was then 79, he lived until late 1983. 

(5) See FN 3.

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