Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Private schools as queue jumping

“Marking Time” an ABC mini-series that finished last night, was not much chop. It suffered from a weakness shared by the grossly over-praised Japanese Story – too many totemic externals (cultural difference, 9/11 and Tampa in the former; cultural difference and the outback in the latter) and not enough character arc and nuance.

The dad character in “Marking Time” especially gave me the shits. Played by the same guy who was the Machiavellian mayor in “Grass Roots”, his unflappable small-l liberalism in “Marking Time” was an empty caricature – you could just tell that the dad was possessed of an almighty wheeler-dealer inner-bastard, champing at the bit to get out and about.

Anyway, I raise “Marking Time” because its bleeding-heart dad did at least manage to get one good line in – calling private school kids, with their artificially-enhanced employment prospects, as Australia’s real queue jumpers.

Here, the facts prove the well-known “old school tie” anecdotes (PDF). A (non-Catholic) private school education is a much better predictor – and so guarantor – of full-time employment at the age of 25 than either higher education or academic ability/sheer intelligence. In a recently-published study, “Dynamics of the Australian Youth Labour Market” (same URL), the second-bottom and second-top “Achievement” quartiles were close to, and sometimes overtook the top quartile in avoiding unemployment (Table 15, p 30). Although the authors of the study don’t spell out as much, the reason for this counter-intuitive result is almost certainly connected with another finding, that secondary school type significantly affects the probability of unemployment: “By age 25, unemployment among those who had attended [private (non-Catholic)] schools was close to zero” (p 31).

The ramifications of this are obvious; or so you might think. Dumb people are being bought jobs by their parents. The only twist in it is that the job-purchase money is paid many years in advance, and not as security for a specific job. Without such refinements, of course, private school fees would be unquestionably seen for what they are – a weaselly bribe which destroys the level-playing field, lifelong, for the honest and/or poor.

Arguments to the contrary, in favour of private schools, invariably trot out two things: “choice” and parental sacrifice. “Choice” is a canard – while I am philosophically against compulsion, few private schools offer anything actually alternative to the status quo; the usual point of difference being simply that they are Better Than The Public System. If this is a fair “marketplace” for educational services, then Stalin (via his two-tier communism) was a tireless merchant and shopkeeper. Then again, Stalinist free-marketeers appear to be alive and well in Burnside, SA (same URL).

The “parental sacrifice” argument is even more ridiculous. Of course it’s a financial sacrifice – bribes, as with other contracts of dubious legality, always are. Think of the hours a sex slave is supposed to work to pay off her debt – an arbitrary sum, of course, which can be unilaterally adjusted during the life of the contract, as the need arises. Similarly with fees paid to people smugglers; in both cases, there is a strong public policy force (at least in Australia) for condemning, preventing and refusing to enforce such contracts. Private school fees should arguably be thought of in the same terms; as money paid to buy what should not be buyable, under any terms.

Monday, November 10, 2003

We'll all be NAIRUned, said Hanrahan

Treasurer Peter Costello’s statement yesterday that nearly every Australian who wants a job can get one, and so "full employment" is in sight, produces two kinds of response in me.

One is mocking incredulity. Yeah, the national unemployment rate may have recently fallen to its equal-lowest rate in 22 years (although I note that the rate actually rose in my home state of Victoria). Anyway, whatever the stats are, the reality on the ground is that there are still multiple qualified (often over- so) applicants for every vacancy. As I wrote here in September, a baggage-handler job I went for had 12 applicants for every vacancy. That is not a multiple of applicants “on paper”; that is the number of people who fronted up in person, to an outer-suburban location unreachable by public transport, during weekday daytime, and with all applicants having had a maximum of 24 hours notice of the interview. And no, it wasn’t a reality TV kind of thing – fabulous perks and all that – the job’s wages were just above the absolute minimum wage floor, at $13 per hour (permanent equivalent), and its hours were casual-only, harsh-starting and few. There was one “Big Brother” connection, admittedly – one of that show’s alumnus was among the queue of desperate applicants.

My other response is to do with Treasurer Costello’s implicit smirking comfort with an unemployment rate (forecast) of 5%, with any lower rate being highly likely to “lead to damaging wage rises and inflation”. This is the dreaded NAIRU, or more accurately, NIARU ("non-inflation-accelerating rate of unemployment”), which The Economist charmingly defines as the Natural Rate of Unemployment.

To be fair (to it, at least) The Economist does immediately alert its readers to the many controversies over the NAIRU; Treasurer Costello, in contrast, has no such qualms.

Personally, I can’t see how an unemployment rate that has, say, only an average of eight, instead of 12, applicants for every vacancy might lead to an inflationary spiral. The ordinary workers of Australia (and elsewhere) would appear to be well-cowed by decades of job insecurity. The Economist indeed admits this in another fashion, when it suggests that the NAIRU, or “natural” unemployment rate has gone down in recent decades because of job-hogging by baby boomers:

Older people have lower unemployment rates than younger ones. In the 1970s, when large numbers of young people and women entered the workforce, the NAIRU rose. In the 1990s, as the workforce has aged, it has fallen.

In other words, only baby boomers (and their slightly more demographically spread partners-in-greed, senior executives and politicians) have, and have had, the leverage to get inflation-threatening wage rises. For the rest, the NAIRU serves as a mythological beast, aka economic anxiety, a creature who is a bogeyman in most grown-up’s subconscious.

For the unemployed, this bogeyman is one step more real – the hallucination of being an unnatural part of a “natural” rate; of being forced to play in “a cruel game of musical chairs”.


I accept the concept of the NAIRU in some form; that labour shortages can exist, so causing inflation. Whatever such a “natural” rate may be, I’d suggest that it certainly would NOT be above 2% (which was thought to be a concerning level of unemployment 60 years ago). A better test, in any case, is probably the ratio of applicants to job vacancies. Even allowing for the residual truly “unemployable”, I can’t see why this ratio should ever have to be above 2:1 for the job market to be in stable equilibrium.

Sunday, November 09, 2003

Is depression (like cancer) an organic condition?


One diagnostic test is clear, though. Depression is the absence of much-derided “managerial language” – words such as “delegated” and “initiated” – from one’s CV, and so, one’s life.

There is not much room to be “under budget” when you’re unemployed, or in perilous casual employment.

Depressives can be good for business – if you really want a plain language workplace, hire one today.

Saturday, November 08, 2003

Don't lump me with Paul Sheehan

Writing a predictably shallow'n'callow review of Paul Sheehan's new book in today's SMH, Max Suich is showing distinct signs of being next week's "Australian Story" guest, a la the dementia-struck Hazel Hawke:

Like many other journalists of his and younger generations, Sheehan is pessimistic about the future of the quality press - it has, he says, lost the battle with the spin doctors, the websites and the management cost squeezes. As mass information becomes cheaper, the relative cost of quality becomes higher. When an older generation looks at the resources available for colour supplements and advertising features, the opportunity to assign reporters to tell the reader what's going on rather than what they ought to think still seems available.

I don't know which is worse - the self-proclaimed "older generation" (which I would have thought included Sheehan, b ~ 1950, under any test) lumping anyone pre-Alzheimers into the same "You young' uns don't realise how good you've got it" basket, or Suich's laughable inference that colour supplements (admittedly an innovation since his heyday) have paved the way for more serious investigative journalism.

Time for your kero bath, Max Suich.

Friday, November 07, 2003

The aetiology of road rage

Tug Dumbly is spot on when he derides the sloppy phrase that is “today's busy world”. Yet a related pervasive myth successfully attributes the main cause of road rage to increased traffic, tighter work deadlines, and so-such. Bullshit.

Road rage incidence has exponentially increased in the last decade or so, without a similarly-scaled shift in the basic ecology of car-opolis. There may be more cars on the road, but there are also more toll-highways (what used to be called “freeways”) in the big cities. The Great Fencing-Off of the inner suburbs in the 1970s and 80s, which closed many streets to through traffic, has long since stalled, so stopping further wholesale enclosures.

What has changed is income (and property) inequality, and so with that, everyday social relations. This anecdote about a Formula One driver recently “falling prey to a road-rage attack” illustrates my point. Australian-born, but European-based Mark Webber seems genuinely stunned that his (and/or his taxi-driver’s) decision to double-park in a Melbourne CBD street – rather than to pull-up kerbside a bit up the road – provoked the reaction it did.

The “10 seconds” time that the consequent delay caused (to probably a dozen or so cars) is not the point. Everyone knows about how long it takes to get out of a taxi and pay the driver, so Webber was just exacerbating the situation, in vocalising the obvious. Webber’s unconscious sarcasm (“he drove up the road like his life depended on it”) is also telling. Yes, it is unlikely that any lives were directly imperilled by the delay caused, but that is not the point, either.

You were being an arsehole, Mr Webber. Roads are public space, an ever-diminishing category of land-usage in Australia. Why can’t Melbourne drivers be more like the Europeans? whines the unctuous Webber. I’ll tell him why – in Europe (I’d bet), drivers only double-park because they need to, although such need is also much more common than in Australia. Only in Australia has the unnecessary disruption of traffic, such as by double-parking, been somehow recently given some kind of privileged status, such that to object to it is called “road rage”.

No, it’s not life and death, Mr Webber. It’s about something just as important in today’s age – respect for the rights of others. I’m talking a respect which is gratuitous and unconditional; which can’t be calibrated or discounted by units of time (which really means money, anyway).

Mr Webber, what you’re really saying is: why should anyone get concerned over a trifle, with this “trifle” being your lazy reluctance walking an extra 10 or 20 metres? We don’t “need more education and more patience" – we need fuckwits like you to value the uncommoditised rights of others as highly as their own imperious, squillionaire personages.

In Europe, "they've got bigger fish to fry”, says Webber. Well, good on ‘em. In Australia, there are millions of small fish, whose entire day is spent trying not to get eaten by much-bigger fish.

Thursday, November 06, 2003

Janet Albrechtsen – if this was “media pack rape”, I’m now joining the queue

Columnist Albrechtsen has so far escaped mention in these pages, mainly by benefit of her predictable, plodding mediocrity. She has long been a one-issue wonder; presiding over an “issue” (judicial activism) which can and has been efficiently disposed of by a capable law student, and yet which refuses to entirely die because of the mileage and mischief the Right get out of ritually flogging its carcass.

When she briefly got off her hobby-horse last year, to wade into the Sydney gang rape debate last year, Albrechtsen was caught out of her depth, and shown up as a Hansonite shit-stirrer. After which she returned dutifully – and one presumes, slightly chastened – to her judicial activism box, and that seemed to be the end of that story. Even yesterday, she was busy pinning the “Naughty Activist Lawyer” tag on Professor Hilary Charlesworth; one of my law school lecturers in the 80s. Professor Charlesworth was (and I assume, still is) a pillar of legal establishment rectitude, and as such, is far from a friend or ally of mine. That Albrechtsen attacks her so casually shows up Albrechtsen’s (and her backers’) campaign for what it is – a witch-hunt in which the cry can be levelled against almost anyone, with the only guaranteed prophylactic against suspicion being to join in the cry itself.

That was yesterday; today Albrechtsen is the passive centrepiece of another story, with Oz editor Michael Stutchbury coming out swingeing, in a bizarre and belated defence of Albrechtsen’s gang rape opinions from 2002. “Bizarre” because Stutchbury’s ratio decidendi depends on accepting Paul Sheehan’s gloss that two Danish academics “appear [not] to dispute” the equation {Immigrants=Muslims}, at least when referring to gang rapes in Denmark. While the belatedness of Stutchbury’s defence has an obvious cause – his article relies heavily on a chapter of a book by Paul Sheehan which has just been published – such a trigger also raises a host of other, meatier questions. If Stutchbury – Albrechtsen’s editor – felt that his columnist was being so unfairly vilified, why did he wait for a year after the last anti-Albrechtsen shot was fired, before weighing in? And why did Stutchbury feel it necessary to lend his name and title to a superficial paraphrase of Sheehan’s book chapter? (an exercise any journo could do, and which was presumably only necessary because Sheehan, or his Fairfax employers, would not give the Oz permission to run it as a straight extract).

Finally, there is the matter of the composition of the “pack” which supposedly so callously went in on Albrechtsen. The complete pack comprises:

- David Marr and other “Media watch” staff

- A Fairfax columnist (Robert Manne)

- Alan Kennedy, “federal president of the Australian Journalists' Association”

- A Federal shadow-minister, Mark Latham

- A current affairs website, Crikey

- Amir Butler, of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee

Some “pack”, eh? Mark Latham is a complete tool and cynical loudmouth; while Robert Manne’s flaw is that he’s had a decency overdose ever since the mid 90s. Whoever Alan Kennedy may be, the union he is supposedly president of has not existed under that name for years. “Media Watch” does what it did to Albrechtsen to dozens of other (usually deserving) journos each year. The “Crikey” website is not averse to the odd muck-rake – a fact which seems to have passed Stutchbury’s attention. And the Amir Butler/Muslim-conspiracy-theory thing is old news – amply raked over in Australian blogworld at the time. Perhaps Stutchbury hasn’t heard of Google, either.

All in all, I suggest that a few weeks of media “pack rape” by the above lot is vastly preferable to consensual (one assumes) media-sex with the likes of Michael Stutchbury and Paul Sheehan. Apart from taking more than a year to simultaneously shoot their wads, one gets the distinct impression that they were really fantasising about someone, or something else when the time finally came to let it go.

Judicial activism Update 20 November 2003

Justice Michael Kirby terms Albrechtsen and her ilk "bully boys" in a recent speech.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Jihad – the world’s number one brand

Organised religion is primarily a vehicle for preserving the status quo; Islamofascism, then, has only a loose, portfolio connection with Islam itself. Modern Jihad may be stepped in the Koran, but is clearly not of it – in its transnational, streetwise success, it is much closer to Nike. The similarities are many – the “cool”-ness, the inane posturing and slogans (“just do it”) – but Jihad has gone one step further, to become the first brand that ate its master.

Jihad is like an audition for a reality TV program that just got bigger and bigger – the audition, that is. The audition becomes the program, and the brand becomes perfected through its own provisionality.

In the non-Muslim West, the closest thing to the practice of Jihad is backpacking. Both are sheltered, faux-ascetic travel rituals, whose usual economic substance is that linguistic abomination: the “working holiday”. As backpacking has not (yet) been branded, its practitioners retain some moral autonomy. In Jihad, all moral precepts are dilutory and subordinate, because of the brand’s endless multiplicity.


Tenants 1, Landlords 0

Today’s interest rate rise is a small step in the right direction. The sad truth, for all those aspirational baby boomers who have recently bought a first (or a second or third) investment property is that they’re dead right – having some spare property is going to be the only thing that may allow them a semi-comfortable retirement.

By so many Gen X’rs being kept on a McJob (at best) short leash into middle-age, and so not having ever entered the property market themselves, the last thing ageing Gen X’rs are going to want to do is to empty the commodes of whining, bedsore-infested boomers. Wages will go up, naturally, but it will be too little, too late. Boomers will be dying en masse in unstaffed nursing homes, desperately drawing their own kero baths, only to then drown in them. Adios, “me generation”!

The only bargaining chip (some) boomers will have is the “roof over the head” factor. If they own surplus property, they should be able to barter accommodation for personal care labour. But there will be mysterious deaths and dodgy last-minute will-changes aplenty – so don’t any of you boomers get too cocky about this scenario. It won’t be Anna Nicole Smith-types giving you a bit of pleasure in your last years, but callous, greedy Gen X’rs double-crossing you when you’re at your most vulnerable. All arts which they learned from you, of course, but had to wait so long before they could actually practise any of them.

So bend over for your second-home suppositories, boomers. They’re big and they’re square, but they’re going to have to last you a long, long time.

Monday, November 03, 2003

Day of the Dead

It’s about 3am yesterday; the Day of the Dead. I wandering alone through empty factory after empty factory. It’s cold, but at least the rain has stopped for now. They’re all neat and clean buildings, 60s era. Between buildings, the stars are out. All would be completely quiet in the industrial estate, about 10km from Melbourne CBD, but for the dance music coming from the only occupied factory. Some enterprising squatters (oxymoron?) have brought in a generator and sound system, and spread the word about a party.

But the word did not spread particularly widely, it seems. There’s a few dozen people there at its partying-est peak. Most comers prefer to congregate where the party set-up is – one end of one disused factory that could hold 10,000 trolley-heads. I’m there with friends, but can’t stop wandering periodically off, to explore the ghost-world hinterland. There is too much space, too much emptiness, and it’s all too monumentally neat.

The space has got me beat. I retreat to the dance-floor area, but can’t stop my mind from running along with the music – dissipating, leaking and creeping through acres of empty floorspace nearby.

Following the silent hedges
Needing some other kind of madness

Pure sensation
The beautiful down grade
Going to hell again

* “Silent hedges” – Bauhaus, The Sky’s Gone Out (1982)

Friday, October 31, 2003

Kathryn Greiner says “My Sydney the epitome of intellectual, cultural and spiritual maturity

Dozens of eager search parties set immediately off to find such apparently undiscovered real estate. They are all disappointed to find that, instead of threadbare artists sitting around all day in ripe-for-demolition cafes, Centennial Park’s only claim to culture is a rich grumpy old poof who died in 1990.

When challenged over her misleading hyperbole, the insouciant Greiner replies: “Did I say 'epitome'? Oh dear – I meant epigone”.

Thursday, October 30, 2003

Gay financial equality

Although I suspect that Australia’s proponents for gay marriage are an altogether different lot from the gay monarchist crowd (a la Michael Kirby), I think that the two groups have more in common than they would care to admit.

While the pro-gay marriagers are less screamingly self-parodic than the gay monarchists, they share a barren campery, a recherché affection for a faded, moth-eaten institution. It’s not that I’m entirely an Insensitive New Age Poof – 100% sentiment free – but in my more optimistic moments (yes, there are some), I believe that we (meaning gaydom at large) are better than that, and the last thing gay talent should be squandered on is the pursuit of the lowest common denominator – aka status equality.

Anyway, I’ve previously blogged on my fence-sitting about gay marriage. Financial equality, on the other hand, is just common sense. While I’m not very worked up about the failure of the superannuation amendments to get through parliament (rich gays will find a loophole I’m sure, and the rest don’t have enough money to even worry about it), this letter from Darryl Wood highlights a serious, disturbing anomaly. Same-sex relationships are regarded as full partnerships by Centrelink, at least as an excuse for reducing welfare benefits.

This is rank, searing discrimination – unless same-sex relationships are financially equal to straight partnerships in all respects, such status should not be capable of invoking any financial penalty.


US commends bus-drivers-in-police-uniform Bush security operation as “first class" . . .

. . . an impressed CIA asks Australia whether these staff are available to mount a “South Pacific” performance at its Christmas shindig in Langley.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Scumsucking white-collar jobs

Buried under a “Warnie” headline at the Crikey website are some little nuggets about the journalists-in-battery-cages operation called Rehame. Apparently the pay works out to be about the same as a 15 year-old working for Maccas (~7 bucks an hour). Having worked briefly for a media monitoring service (not Rehame) a few years ago, the report rings true, as far as rock-bottom wages and conditions go.

While Rehame’s boss is depicted as a bon vivant, albeit with mercenary tendencies, my own boss-cum-company-owner had no redeeming qualities at all, at least that I could tell. She was a former librarian, whose entrepreneurial streak seemed only to be a fortuitous byproduct of her all-enveloping sadism.

If you ever see an ex-librarian with a business plan and an MBA, then, my advice is to shoot it on sight*.

* Does not apply to “DJ” from Adelaide!

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Emergency teacher mistakenly administers gay “training resource” to students . . .

. . . over-defensive Principal fumbles his response – says “the unit was compulsory”, when he meant to say “It’s a pilot for a wacky new teen reality show – Big Pervy Locum”.


Famous Andy Warhol aphorism re-interpreted . . .

. . . Now reads: “Everyone will have an original authenticated Warhol for 14 years”

* (So suck on that, all you baby boomer art collector schmucks)

Monday, October 27, 2003

How-to-vote cards

Australian democracy is tainted by compulsion – and making this even worse is the dressing-up of this compulsion with bell’n’whistles hoopla. I’m not talking brass bands and spangly outfits; I’m talking how-to-vote cards.

For a start, they’re a fuckin insult to anyone with an IQ above the sub-moronic. Believe it or not, I (and I assume most people) go into the polling place having already made my mind up who I’m voting for. And I also understand preferential voting, so I don’t need any help with filling in the other numbers, either. Seriously, what do those hacks handing out the cards expect – I’m going to go for the leaflet with the prettiest-typography? Or, since the hander-outerer hacks are invariably ugly, ill-dressed nerds, do they think that I might be swayed by their piteous appearance to cast a sympathy vote for their party?

Having the whole voting process happen in the faux jollity of a primary school doesn’t help, either. I’m only there against my will, folks – and the fact that I consider braving this gauntlet of geeks to cast my largely futile* vote to be an economically rational alternative to a $20 (or whatever it is) fine amply indicates that I don’t have money to burn at your sausage sizzle, either – so fuck off times two, you pseudo-charitable hotplate monopolists.

The last straw (as usual) is Andrew Norton, who turns out to be one of the aforementioned hander-outerer hacks. To reiterate – my dislike of these people is entirely non-partisan, although I do tend to think that the Greens, of all people, should be averse to the waste of paper (and don’t parry back that it’s all recycled, blah, blah blah – the issue is that my little voting brain does not take kindly to the regurgitated pulp that’s on the leaflets).

Here’s Handy Andy on the polling day fun and games:

The people who look like they are having not just a bad day but a bad life usually breach polling booth etiquette and neither take all how-to-vote cards nor politely decline those they do not want. They ignore or abuse the Liberal volunteer before taking a Labor or nutter party card.

So “polling booth etiquette” apparently demands that one either take all the proffered how-to-vote cards, or “politely decline” them on an individual basis. Option one is logically only for those who humour and gallantly hang on to each incoming telemarketer’s call until the seller hangs up, and option two is a pretty-overt statement of who one is going to vote for (as well as the extraordinary indulgence of a bunch of geeks, a fawning usually only seen at Christmas day lunch when distant relations are present).

Tellingly, Andrew Norton doesn’t even acknowledge as possible that a voter may choose to “ignore” all how-to-vote cards equally – which is what I do. I don’t know or care if I do so “politely”; all I know is that their presence is both voluntary and gratuitous, while mine is not.

* “Futile” because a vote for a minor party in the lower house (save for extraordinary candidates or situations) ultimately counts for only the major party that is earlier preferenced. If (as is often the case), I cannot conscionably give my vote to either major party, I vote informally.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Does Kim (of “Kath and Kim”) have depression?

Leaving aside the theoretical iss-ewes to do with the medical diagnosis of fictional characters, this rant against the most-excellent (and the only ever good) Aussie sitcom “Kath and Kim” has got me mighty worked up.

For whatever reason, “Kath and Kim”-knocking seems to be a particularly Sydney thing (with the exception of Geoff Honnor). I’m assuming here that the John Miner who wrote this latest diatribe is this one. Certainly, a male baby boomer who has both lived high on the international conference-circuit hog and has a chip on his shoulder about depictions of mundane suburban Oz fits the "wanker" identikit perfectly.

I’ll let my case rest with two factual corrections. First, the characters of Prue and Trude were not “belatedly” introduced, as Miner claims. As well as appearing in series one of K&K, they were also in “Big Girls Blouse” – a kind of progenitor to “Kath and Kim”, which featured all the current show’s lead female characters.

Second, no character on “Kath and Kim” is remotely close to being what I’d consider poor, or (Brett aside) even working class. Kath is of independent means and Kel is your average John Howard-voting small businessman (that’s them as Melbourne-dwellers, anyway – Geoff Honnor pegs them as Lathamite aspirationals, but I don’t see any sign of them being 4WD owning fuckwits). What none of the characters emphatically are is university-educated, and it is here that Miner really gives his age away.

Miner had a mid-70s undergraduate education entirely on the public teat, and – as is so often the case with his privileged ilk – seems utterly incapable of grasping today’s Realpolitik that user-pays tertiary education often correlates with later unemployment and poverty. Kath’s also being a baby boomer means that her lack of higher ed is neither here nor there on the personal wealth front, but for Kim – a sort of flagbearer for generation Y – being a spoilt princess for a living is undoubtedly a very, very clever career choice on her part. After all, why slog it out at the call centre – which is full of graduates who often really are clinically depressed – when she can shop at the mall and otherwise mooch her days away, all free of the stresses of a large HECS bill, and the related anxiety that there should be something more?

If Kim is suffering from depression, then – I’ll have what she’s having.

Friday, October 24, 2003

Jesuit reaches intellectual rock bottom – starts to believe own Church’s PR guff

As a prolapsed Catholic (meaning a combination of “professionally lapsed” and “mysteriously sunken and now hanging loosely from my own bottom”), excessive hubris on my own part is a distinct life hazard. Which is why, wherever possible, I try to pick on someone my own size.

Enter the Jesuits – a clerical order (for those of you unfamiliar with Catholic heraldry’s low-key approach) known for both its depth of learning and robust independence from the Papal seat-warmer and fashion of the day.

And disgracing the Jesuits on both these counts is one Fr Emmet P Costello, entering into the long-running Christopher Hitchens/Mother Theresa imbroglio. Unforgivably, Fr Costello leaps to Mother Theresa’s defence by invoking the conversion of Malcolm Muggeridge. Anyone who has even flipped through Hitchens’s 1995 book The Missionary Position will know that Muggeridge is Hitchens’s Exhibit Number 1 for his case against the midget Albanian nun. A fact that is also freely and abundantly available on the internet.

Jesuits – your intellectual sloppiness here is the unfortunate equivalent of the interiors of Mother Theresa’s foetid, septic hospices. Methinks it’s high time you became one of those self-flagellating orders.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

“Full” and fuller text of Bush speech

This is strange: the American-version “full text” is about half the length of the Australian version. It’s not an obvious conspiracy-type thing, mind – the most egregious piece of bullshit occurs in both versions:

Since the liberation of Iraq, we have discovered Saddam's clandestine network of biological laboratories, his design work on prohibited long-range missiles, his elaborate campaign to hide illegal weapons programs.

Possibly, the discrepancy between the two “full texts” can be explained by the American public’s notorious geographic ignorance. Even the shorter version mentions four other countries by name (Iraq, Afghanistan, Thailand and Indonesia) as of current significance to the US Australia relationship (in addition to the rattling-off of wars jointly fought by previous generations). Mention of any more nations may have risked total meltdown in the average American’s brain.

More likely, however, is that the second half is “For Australian Eyes Mainly” – a move designed not so much to protect the Americans, as to indulge the Australians. It is the equivalent of the token few lines of “local” material a stand-up comic visiting Australia does, before launching into his/her well-worn, globalised routine. A fly-in, busy celebrity often has to externally (that is, locally) source such “local” material, of course, and indeed, the speech’s "Aussie" second half strikes some quintessentially Gallipolli-esque chords, especially with its climax coming in General Douglas MacArthur’s WWII darkest hour speech.

Also telling is this:

Australia's agenda with China is the same as my country's.

Telling, because it is not at all a Yankee presumption, but a fervent aspiration on Australia’s part. The future emergence of China as a fully-fledged superpower – largely standing in for what the USSR was between ~1960 and ~1980 – leaves America in a win-win situation. If the West’s current process of China appeasement goes pear-shaped (through a war over Taiwan or even a trade war), it will be back to business-as-usual for the US, in one sense.

In contrast, the current Australia-China relationship is not only perilously one-sided, there is nowhere for Australia to go should things turn rocky later on. Australia has already bet its entire stake on the China card, while the US is keeping a poker face.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Select elite cults of the world, Part 1 – Acoustic Ecology

It’s funny what you find when you look up the loose threads of a Gen X public individual’s existence on the net. There aren’t many of them of course, and of those that there are, most are narrow specialists in their public profile (e.g. sports figures).

No plodding specialist is Melbourne composer and arts czar Jonathan Mills – most freshly famous for making today’s “Smart 100 Australians” list. My curiosity was piqued by the list’s brief bio of him:

Jonathan Mills, director of two Melbourne festivals, and professor in environmental acoustics at RMIT

Knowing a bit about RMIT (and much more about the abysmal state of Australian academia), I was intrigued – Australia has very few professors under the age of 40; and what was “environmental acoustics”, anyway?

Sadly for me (hoping for a true Gen X success story), Jonathan turns out to be an adjunct professor only. Which title (in Australia, but not the US) means little, if anything, in terms of academic achievement. Worse, a similar zero seems to attach to the whole discipline of “environmental acoustics”, or its synonym (at least in Jonathan Mills’s case) “acoustic ecology”.

For an organisation only founded in 1993, Jonathan has indeed been at its very leading edge, having been an Australian delegate to the World Forum of Acoustic Ecology between 1991 and 1996.

With the grandly-titled World Forum apparently having hit Melbourne earlier this year, I expected to find a lot of local coverage of the event. Alas – only one internet record of the March 2003 festivities seems to have been made (ironically enough, as a passing reference in a blog!). No word, however, on what contributions local-boy Jonathan may have made to the event. Perhaps he was tied up in one of those pesky culture-industry board meetings he is forever getting dragooned into.

The final piece of the Jonathan Mills and “acoustic ecology” jigsaw is here. Nigel Frayne, a Melbourne-based “sound designer” (and, judging by his quote “sound recording is not the main focus of our business”, general wanker), turns out to be “chair of the board of the World Forum of Acoustic Ecology and the president of the affiliated group in Australia”. In other words, Jonathan Mills’s mate, and vice versa.

Acoustic ecology – nice prestige bludge if you can get it.

Monday, October 20, 2003

Special UK “Big Brother” to be made for the secondary school market

When I read this and then thought about it a while, I decided it had to be a joke, an elaborate one admittedly, to get past the bullshit-detectors at the Guardian and SMH.

The main clue here was this line:

In a remarkable show of restraint, cigarettes and alcohol are barred.

Dripping with sarcasm, no? I mean, anything made for an educational, or even (as I’d prefer here) edutainment market, doesn’t need “restraint” to exclude cigarettes and alcohol, any more than a modern listed-company CEO needs restraint to stop bragging to shareholders at the AGM how much he/she is shafting them – it’s part of the job, dummy.

And then there are these caricatured-sounding quotes, supposedly from the mouth of the edutainment’s commissioner, one Heather Rabbatts:

We're trying to create innovative programming about stuff you didn't learn at school but should have. It struck me that we should start making programs that are much more synergistic with the station's audience, educational shows that work across the schedule and bring alive the issues and preoccupations of 14 to 19-year-olds.

People say public service broadcasting is all about creating those high-value moments which no one watches. But why not also have high-value moments which millions of people watch? I don't have any romantic notion about education. It's tough and the requirements of the [14 to 19-year-old] audience is different to what it was 10 years ago.

The ability to read and write are all [sic] important, but do they also have the life skills to navigate their way through a complicated world? It's tough, because a quarter of this age group [in Britain] leaves school without any qualifications at all. They are bored and they want to be entertained.

What kind of a fuckwit could say these things, from any position of power or authority? If I had kids, I certainly wouldn’t let them anywhere near such a babbling-psycho.

It turns out that Heather Rabbatts is real (and a baby boomer, of course), but in a scarily, post-modern parodic way – she is a guru, of sorts. Googling her name results in reams of (non-duplicated) hits, mostly of her speaking at management and motivational conferences. And her “thing”? – turning around, as CEO, the financially-stricken London Borough of Merton in the mid 90s, a feat achieved by her sacking 1200 staff.

When I think of a reality TV concept cruel – and appropriate – enough for Heather Rabbatts and her ilk to be on, I’ll post an update.

Friday, October 17, 2003

Public funding, sport and universities

High-level (or what used to be called “elite”, before that became a dirty word) sport has a tradition of public funding in most first-world and (now) ex-communist countries. As far as I’m aware, the Australian Right have never had too much of a problem with this, despite the sheer ideological affront of it all. Apart from the most dollar (and sweat) intensive of the athlete academies being housed in the old command’n’control states – cue “boo hiss” – there is a simple and virtually irrefutable match between private sponsorship dollars and high-level sports funding, at least in poly sports-mad Australia. In other words, what business has the State being involved in the industry at all? While a necessary exception could be made here for unsponsorable sports (Academy of Tunnel-ball, anyone?), the broader rule stands – the price of accepting taxpayer dollars is putting up with government meddling and interference; and so, such a price is unacceptably high.

That, anyway, is the persistent argument mounted by Melbourne Uni VC, Professor Alan Gilbert, and his ever-faithful sidekick, Andrew Norton – only applied to universities, not sport, of course. According to Professor Gilbert:

My second target tonight is the heretical idea that, for universities, public funding is uniquely legitimate.

Perhaps more than anywhere else, Australia has reified the idea of a public university. In most parts of the world, public universities, creatures of the 19 and 20 centuries, remain only one model among several. But in Australian higher education debates are often dominated by people suspicious of any funding that does not come from the public purse.

The ideological strength of these convictions is astonishing. Even when they are obliged by sheer weight of evidence to concede that levels of public funding fall well short of what is required for an internationally competitive higher education system, people persuaded of the unique legitimacy of public funding still commonly resist private finding strategies with partisan zeal, and oppose in principle the engagement of universities in commercial activities.

In assuming that public funding alone is free from corrupting influences associated with the power of the purse, advocates of the public university are either implying that he (or she) who pays the piper calls the tune - except, curiously, when Government is the paymaster — or, alternatively, insisting that Governments always play wholesome and uplifting tunes. The corollary is that sponsorship, benign in its public form, undermines the very legitimacy of the idea of a university when it comes from private sources, and especially from the commercial world.

Having been a Vice-Chancellor for 13 years, that seems to me to be an arrestingly innocent view. No one remotely in touch with reality could believe that Government funding flows to universities without either strings attached or far-reaching policy, interventions. Those advocating the exclusive legitimacy of public funding must therefore believe that Government interventions are uniformly benign. But that, too, seems extraordinarily naïve. The truth is that all funding entails a danger of undue influence. The immense importance that universities have placed historically on high levels of institutional autonomy is a measure of their determination to ensure that no patron, whether a medieval prince, a fee-paying student, a profit-driven corporation sponsoring research
or a modern state, is ever able to compromise the integrity of scholarship or the independence of research.

The irony is that Government paymasters are usually the most demanding of all sponsors when it comes to trying to call the tune in the academy.

If applied to high-level sports academies, Professor Gilbert’s thoughts* are easily seen for what they are – agenda-mongering bullshit. Granted, there is no absolute, good reason why the state should financially (or otherwise) be involved in such academies. Further, there is abundant evidence that government paymasters, more so than private sponsors, indirectly breed organisational complacency (surely the worst form of sponsor interference of all). So why, oh why does Australia persist with socialist-style (and scale) sporting academies?

Of course, any fool or jock knows the answer to this – excellence. The private sector is good at, and for, many things, but it doesn’t – and couldn’t – run high-level sports academies. By “private sector”, here BTW, I exclude US-style bountiful legacies (rich dead Australians are, for whatever reason, keener to be remembered via anachronistic art and most-compelling-Ukranian-peasant literary competitions, or perpetual trusts for the siphoning of income from poor Victorians into the pockets of Tasmanian rustics and/or mass-murdering psychopaths.)

Bringing the argument back to higher education, what is the difference between it and sport in Australia? (Insert obvious joke here . . . laugh, and move on.) Okay, scale and “bang for buck” is a big one – total public spending on sports academies is a fraction of that on unis, because most obviously, there is vastly bigger head-count at the latter, just as there should be.

Countering this, however, is what I would term the “Interfering with Excellence Paradox”. That is, the higher the stakes – for government/sponsor as well as everyone else – then the less interference from on high. An Australian government that micro-managed its top sports academy would soon find its efforts were distinctively counter-productive. Ditto surely for universities, at least if there was only one, or at most a handful, of them. Which there is not, but here’s the rub – in both sport and academe, the government’s money pump reaches a point of diminishing returns. At and below this quality** tipping-point, there is nothing to be gained from handing over taxpayer dollars.

Which means, then, that government interference is an inevitable, necessary and good thing – but only at the bottom, marginal end of the industry. Those institutions who proclaim, with just cause, their excellence, should be left alone to get on with it – to make their sponsor proud, if you like – while those who are just treading water in the Olympic swimming trial scheme of things should be left to find their own level in the private sector.

Either way, the governmental “interference” is but a sort, sweet moment.

* The true irony of which thoughts is that these thoughts were delivered as the 2003 Menzies Oration. Translation: hundreds of graduands had to sit through this rant, before they could collect their ribbon-wrapped degrees. The mums and dads in the audience must have been thrilled to hear Professor Gilbert pay out on the ideological taintedness of their offspring’s new degrees.

** Much as I hate the q-word in the higher ed context, I can’t think of a substitute term here. “Quality” in higher ed is not an exact counterpart to empirically-measurable quality in sport (e.g. gold medals), but in terms of national outcomes, the analogy still holds.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Brendan Nelson – make your mind up

Today, of course, is higher education strike day. Up in Darwin, blogger-academic Ken Parish is scabbing – albeit with some qualms and qualifications (typical lawyer!), while in Brisbane fellow aca-blogger John Quiggin is firmly downing tools, including to the point of making sure his pay will be docked.

More ambiguously, down the road from chez Watson, at the dreaming (although cream-brick and squat) spires of Melbourne Uni, Andrew Norton – blogger and policy aide-de-camp to that institution’s outgoing VC – has successfully braved the picket lines, only to then sit down at work and tap-tap at his blog. Which is a tried and true form of passive resistance-style industrial action in Australia – doing one’s private stuff on the boss’s time.

On the other hand, Andrew could well argue that his blog’s description of today’s strike as “pointless” is well within the general duties of his job. After all, Education Minister Brendan Nelson had used that exact same adjective in a news report 41 minutes earlier, and re-transcribing what the Great Leader has previously said should, at least in the current political climate, be applauded as well-intentioned homage (and certainly not derided as lazy, private partisan politicking in place of doing actual work).

And speaking of Dr Nelson, I am unsure what to make of this, his latest ultimatum:

"If Australia is to continue to enjoy a world class higher education system, change and investment is urgently required." (same URL)

When my expensively educated – but now sadly little-utilised – mind read this, I distinctly recalled that Dr Nelson has previously spoke of regaining our “world class” higher education system. In other words, that such a status had been lost, albeit hopefully only temporarily. (As to why this tidbit stuck in my brain – I half-wrote a blog some time ago regarding a somewhat fanciful legal action, in which I would demand a “put option” of my (earning-power-sending-backwards) degrees from the government; under which I would renounce them, but in return be reimbursed for the half-a-million dollars or so they have (not-at-all-fancifully) cost me, as naturally set off by the (relatively piffling) government subsidies I received while doing some of them.)

Anyway, back to the main issue – does Australia enjoy “a world class higher education system” right now, according to Brendan Nelson? Today, it’s clearly a “yes” but funnily enough, in September, it was this:

They said to me throughout the course of the review that it was critically important if we're going to have a world-class higher education system that the universities themselves be able to set the HECS charge.

and similarly, in July:

We will not ever have a world-class higher education system or individual university in this country so long as we continue with an arrangement that says every university is the same. It's a fantasy that needs to end.

“It's a fantasy that needs to end”. Touché, Dr Nelson.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Gutter and gutter-er journalism

The allegations made by former swimmer Emma Fuller against her one-time coach Greg Hodge have, in only the two days since they were first aired*, degenerated into an ugly battle by proxy between the Seven and Nine TV networks. “Ugly” of course, because while cutthroat competition between rival TV networks – and their rival dumbed-down “current affairs” shows in particular – is to be expected, staging a battle of the eyeballs and (network) egos involving real human lives at their most vulnerable is disgusting, sheer exploitation.

Of the two networks and their respective tabloid flagships, Seven’s “Today Tonight” deserves the stronger condemnation. While Nine’s original story could hardly be described as balanced, they were fairly careful – as far as I could tell – to only put to air material that would not attract a defamation writ. In contrast, Seven has declared open slather on Emma Fuller, seeming happy to airing any piece of “dirt” on her at all. Unfortunately for the young Emma, if Seven’s campaign against her is eventually revealed as baseless smearing, her defamation payout is unlikely to be anything near as fiscally hurtful to Seven as the whopper amount paid to John Marsden, a higher-profile victim of an ill-conceived Seven witch-hunt.

And the “Who do you believe?” 1900- and website-voting poll at http://www.todaytonight.com.au is even lower down in the gutter. Memo to Seven – current affairs is not (yet) reality TV.

* Broadcast on “A Current Affair” 13 October 2003 (no URL)

Monday, October 13, 2003

The triumph of the will of George Adams – the Tattersall's secret empire

Wacky bequests – multi-million dollar trusts for the upkeep of a favourite cat, and the like – is something of an English speciality. In Australia, the beneficiaries of a wacky will are more likely to be fat cats of the human variety.

George Adams (1839-1904) was a gambler turned gaming industry magnate. His knack was to turn Tattersall's – originally a private (members only) gambling club – into a pari-mutuel outfit open to all comers. Unlike bookmakers, and even casino operators going through a statistically abnormal bad batch, operators of pari-mutuel gambling do so on an utterly risk-free basis – as long as there is a cake, their cut of it is assured, and payouts to punters can only be out of what remains.

Correction 14 October 2003. Tattersall's 19th C sweeps, although based on horse race results, were not “pari-mutuel”; rather they seem to have been (also operator risk-free) conventional lotteries, with the winning horse’s number standing in for today’s plastic ball number. Thus, winning was a matter of pure chance (and so fixed-odds), while pari-mutuel betting offers varying and floating odds.

Oh, and after government taxes have taken their cut, too. Perhaps surprisingly, late 19th century colonial governments did not immediately embrace George Adams's burgeoning business. He was run out of New South Wales, found temporary jurisdictional refuge in Queensland and then Tasmania, before finally finding a warmer set of palms to grease within the state of Victoria.

Correction 14 October 2003. As last night’s “Four Corners” made clear, while George Adams was indeed run out of New South Wales (in 1892), he received a warm and lasting welcome in Tasmania, before his estate’s business domicile, and so tax base, was poached by state of Victoria in 1954.

Which state and Tattersall's have ever after remained the closest of friends and business acquaintances. In the ninety-nine years since George Adams’s death, Tattersall's has made few adjustments to its business model. Long ago, its original monopoly over pari-mutuel betting on horse-racing was handed over to a Victorian government authority, since privatised, and now known as Tabcorp.

Correction 14 October 2003. As noted above, Tattersall's sweeps, although based on horse race results, were not pari-mutuel, or totalizator, based. Victoria’s TAB was only established in 1961, by which time Tattersall's sweeps had become modern lotteries. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, John Wren built an illegal gaming empire based on pari-mutuel betting – just prior to the Australian invention of the automatic totalizator in 1913.

Most notably, in recent years, Tattersall's and Tabcorp were handed the master-license for all of Victoria’s poker machines. Again, this was a business coup true to the spirit of the late George Adams – a risk-free licence to print money ($6bn in 2002), albeit sharing it with one other (a long-time cosy “competitor”, at that).

Left unchanged for the last ninety-nine years is the basic legal structure of the Tattersall's empire, post George Adams’s death. As a private trust, the business reverted to the secrecy of the private club Tattersall's originally began as, before big George took the whole show to the masses. Although a corporate shell (actually two – Tattersall's Gaming Pty Ltd and Tattersall's Holdings Pty Ltd) has been overlaid on the business, so as for it to be capable of holding a gaming licence, the owners of the cash-cow business are not shareholders of either company. As beneficiaries of a private trust, the owners’ identities are regarded by law as nobody’s business – unless and until the reciprocal relationship between owner and manager (beneficiary and trustee) breaks down.

Amazingly enough, judging by this story in today’s Herald-Sun (as well as promos for a “Four Corners” story to air tonight) at least some of the Tattersall's owners have decided to disturb the longstanding cosy club. I say “amazingly”, because even though the trustees’ alleged failure to inform the beneficiaries of their remuneration is clearly a legitimate grievance, killing the goose that laid the golden egg must be a distinct medium-term risk. According to one dissident beneficiary:

Publicly listing the company "would make it more accountable to the Victorian public (and) stop it from being run like a secret society. The current structure isn't in the best interests of the company and the community."

Err, actually I think you might find that “the best interests of the community" would be served – if not by trucking away every last poker machine in the state to the scrapyard – by granting the licenses (due for renewal in 2012) only in exchange for 99% of their value being returned as taxes to the state. In other words, the licences should not be handed out on a “to print money” basis, but only in return for work to be actually done. Which leaves nix for free-riding beneficiaries, as well as their even fatter-feline trust managers, of course.

And calling for the Tattersall's trust to be publicly listed, as the dissident beneficiary goes on to do, is surely a big gamble – and gambling is something that none of the beneficiaries, or their well-paid trustees have ever been called upon to do. The more light that is shone upon the yellowing will-paper of George Adams, the thinner their – and/or anybody else’s – claims to a share from a golden goose will be. If it is the Tattersall's beneficiaries who are the ones that bring the end to this Havisham-esque relic, then the sight of George’s will (and the bloated empire that it has carried to this day) turning into dust will be all the sweeter.

Update 14 October 2003

Excellent “Four Corners” last night. The post-show forum is well-worth trawling through, but as it’s a pain in the arse to navigate, I’ve taken the liberty to put up a few gems, below. Highlights: (i) it seems that many (if not most) of the beneficiaries are Tasmanian “old money” (insert own joke here), and (ii) the comments of a beneficiary, “Peter”.


From: Ormond 13/10/2003 10:00:25 PM
Subject: re: secret beneficieries nonsense post id: 212

Anecdotally, I can support the assertion that the pokies have greatly increased the income some of the beneficiaries are receiving.

In Tasmania, one pastoralist (who married a beneficiary) has had his Tatts dividend increase from $200,000 p.a. to $2M p.a. This has permitted him, naturally, to buy up more than 50,000 acres in the last three years alone.

The assertion that Tattersall's is a great philanthropic company is absolute rubbish. Talk about spin. All the money taken from the suburban poor is being transferred to the clapped-out, fly-blown "old money", much of them in Tasmania.

ABC Stateline in Tassie recently did a piece on one mob of beneficiaries, the Harvey girls who have "worked hard" to buy back the old family farm east of Oatlands in the midlands of Tasmania.

From: kenneth 13/10/2003 10:13:16 PM
Subject: re: Tatt's economic arguments are false post id: 294

Arguably an unproductive dollar out of the hands of many is a productive fortune in the hands of a few. That was one of the rationales for the government imprimatur for tatts in Tasmania to begin with - creation of wealthy people who would invest in the growth of a new city. Of course, the moral issues that we see with addiction are odious.

From: peter 13/10/2003
Subject: re: Such genorisity post id: 260

How can you say that so glibly? I am a beneficiary and a bit of that money comes out of my income.

I DO NOT begrudge it one bit - I am proud to be connected with Tattersalls and I support their charitable activities wholeheartedly.

From: peter 13/10/2003 11:02:08 PM
Subject: re: Such genorisity post id: 447

Rich (with sarcasm)KarenP, does any business that makes a profit have this "licence to print money"? Your response is patronizing and thoughtless - there were many good reasons why Tatts was invited to provide this service to the people of Victoria but you countenance the existence of none. Was it Tatt's responsibility to refuse the offer - if a "public company " board had done so they would have been sacked forthwith, and rightly so.

From: peter 13/10/2003 11:04:36 PM
Subject: re: Such genorisity post id: 448

Include yourself in that reaping - by far the larger part of the misery reaping goes back to you, citizen of Victoria. Show your mettle and refuse any and all services provided by government.

From: peter 13/10/2003 11:55:48 PM
Subject: re: Such genorisity post id: 468

Ok, as long as all of you that have anything inherited do the same. Maybe James Packer should start the ball rolling.

From: peter 13/10/2003 11:53:13 PM
Subject: re: Benefits of gambling post id: 467

I blew my entire pay for ten years on a business that failed, even though I followed all the best advice available. They say that most new businesses fail - shouldn't we have a failed business's anonymous?


In summary, then, "Peter" is a handy, complete case-history of the fact that the beneficiaries are (i) parasitical weasels and (ii) shithouse entrepreneurs themselves. The fact that most (?) of his ilk are rural Tasmanians, and so semi-invisible, just makes it worse. It also throws an interesting new light, for me, on the sad case of one particularly fucked-up Tattersall’s beneficiary, Tasmania's Martin Bryant.


Man takes “service desk” literally . . .

. . . and dies of a heart attack for his trouble.

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Architect of HECS lashes out at umpteenth, latest extension to scheme

“My original House of Debt blueprint always kept the debt ‘ambiguous’” says Professor Bruce Chapman. Well, sorry Bruce – it seems that nothing can help the architectural integrity of your little creation now. It’s grown like topsy, and with acres of fake brick cladding to match.

Back to the drawing board – I dare you.

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