Straight to the Point



Titbits from his regular diet of worms


The Cage, Bali

Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018


IT’S magic what you can do these days with a talking smart phone. The other day we had to drive into Denpasar – a strange bit of it with which we are unfamiliar – and it was a dream. All we had to do was follow the dulcet directions of the lovely lady map-reader who apparently inhabits The Diary’s Huawei and speaks to you with perfect diction and in very sound English. Possibly her name is not Joy, but nonetheless a joy she is.

It’s good too that as you inch along in south Bali’s dense traffic, threatened on all sides by even denser drivers, you can also see from your handy interactive map where your next major tailback is going to be. There’s no escaping it, generally, but at least you know it’s there. It’s a bit like how Lieutenant Colonel Custer might have found himself unhappily pre-advised if he’d bothered to send scouts out ahead of his cavalry column as it trotted up the Rosebud. He could have sworn pre-emptively himself, too, then.

Encore du Vin

HAVING a French friend has always been lovely, as we’ve noted before. The French are often much more interesting than Anglos, and that’s not just because the expressive nature of the language and French culture adds to the joie de vivre.

We’re fortunate, as we’ve also noted previously, to have a good friend who lives in the French style at Petulu near Ubud, in a villa in which astonishingly we are welcome visitors. Even her cats speak French, with a meow of course, and in fact they appear to be trilingual. They understand “Non,” “No,” and “Tidak,” though of course, being cats, they pretend they don’t, or that they haven’t heard you, or that plainly you have directed your latest vocalised imperative to someone else. If pressed upon a particular point, each affects insouciance in the face of unwanted instruction that is both typical of the feline community and a joy to watch: “Moi? Sûrement pas!”

Another benefit of long weekends in a French ambience is the availability of wine and cheese and the cultural necessity to consume these victuals in more than micro-measurable quantities well into the evening and in fact well past the time when your calèche has turned into a citrouille (and you’ve given up worrying about that silly glass slipper anyway).

Lost Their Tackle

THE Indonesian agriculture ministry and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have designated four areas in Indonesia for pilot projects to tackle the spread of zoonotic diseases such as rabies, anthrax and avian influenza, and emergent ones, that normally have animal hosts but can infect humans. There’s another zoonotic disease of deep concern, plague, which is endemic in parts of Central Java, including Boyolali, one of the areas nominated for study, and in East Java, but that’s long been under strict control measures – including effective rubbish control and disposal – and fieldwork to keep an eye on infection levels in rodents.

The four areas in the new study are Bengkalis in Riau, Ketapang in West Kalimantan, Boyolali in Central Java and Minahasa in North Sulawesi. “We select areas based on the risks and the state of medical infrastructure and the commitment of regional administrations,” says the FAO’s Emergency Centre for Transboundary Animal Diseases (ECTAD) Indonesia’s Andri Jatikusumah.

Bali isn’t on the list. It lost its tackle over rabies when, after international efforts following the 2008 outbreak gave it a great start, it all became too hard for the provincial and local governments. It’s not only in Bali where foolish politics, conflicting priorities (all those Kijiangs and Fortuners) and administrative ennui combine to derail all sorts of things. Bureaucracies everywhere have dreadful trouble with dogs that eat their homework.

Cina Bali

WE’VE just read a really interesting feature in The South China Morning Post, about the symbiosis between Chinese and Balinese cultures. We’d recommend it as reading for anyone who is interested in anthropology, as well as the many who fear that Balinese culture will ultimately be swamped by the tsunami of profane banality that is modern day Indonesian money power.

Among other things, it makes the point that Agama Hindu Dharma – Bali’s unique religion and culture – is an accretion of Hindu, Buddhist and animist beliefs. It is a naturally accepting belief system, not a religion that is hidebound by a book. The point in this instance is that the Chinese Indonesian writer who is the subject of the interview felt no sense of being an outsider when she was growing up in Bali. That ridiculous predisposition in the minds of others only came to her notice when she went to Jakarta to study. At home in Bali she was Cina Bali, properly just part of the human landscape. Off the island, she was “Cina!” or worse, “Amoy”, presumptive and frankly threatening accusations of difference. She was not pribumi: she was an outsider.

The Chinese have a very long history in Bali, as do Chinese communities in other parts of Indonesia. But, here, where for all the set nature of Hindu Dharma religious observance and cultural practice, there is a long tradition of accretion, of incorporating symbolism and articles of faith from elsewhere, a formal veneration of ancestors, and wide acceptance of the benefits of otherness. The Chinese presence – around 14,000 people identify as Cina Bali – has become integral to the island’s culture, rather than something temporarily attached to it.

There’s a book in all of that, and one’s apparently in the works. It should be an anthropological feast.

As We Were Saying

AMID some hoopla, the authorities some days ago downgraded the alert status for Mt Agung, noting that while volcanic eruption was still occurring, there was less pressure within the mountain’s core and therefore less risk of a powerful eruption. The mountain answered that, partly in the affirmative, within a matter of hours. It staged an eruption that sent ash 1,500 metres into the air above the 3,000-metre summit. There was light ash fall from Amlapura to Tulamben on Bali’s eastern coast.

On figures from Feb. 13 from 103 evacuation posts – down 43 from the previous day – there are still 10,890 evacuees registered. More than 6,000 people had left the evacuation camps since the alert status was lowered from IV to III and the exclusion zone was reduced to a four-kilometre radius. Residential numbers high on the volcano show 602 people live within the four-kilometre radius, 986 within five kilometres, and about 17,000 within six kilometres.

But the emergency is not over. This is not the time for anyone to drop any balls.


WE had an opportunity while in Ubud to chat with Janet DeNeefe, over sparkling water served at Honeymoon Cottages in Jl. Bisma, about this year’s writers and readers’ festival – it’s in October and is the fifteenth – and the 2018 Ubud Food Festival, which is in April. It was an interesting chat. We’ll come back to the UWRF, at some length, in another forum in a little while. Meanwhile the food festival program is now online. Mouths may now officially water in anticipation.

It’s the Ethics, Stupid!

AS a rule, we avoid too closely associating with the political news that filters out of Australia. It’s generally banal and – unless it’s about something that directly affects you – rather pointless. Scoring political points is for others, trolls and the like, and those for whom partisanship is a way of life.

There are exceptions to this rule, and one such is upon us now, concerning the deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, who is leader of the junior (but essential) branch of the coalition, the National Party. Joyce has made a sad, sorry, and farcical nonsense of his personal life, bedding and impregnating his staff media adviser and leaving his quarter-century-old marriage as a result. That, essentially, is a private matter. If it requires condign and clamorous judgment from outside the home he’s wrecked, this should come from those whose deepest wish seems to be to force their way into the private lives of others.

What actually matters is the ethical question as it relates to public office and expenditure of public funds. As Simon Longstaff of the Ethics Centre (in Sydney) has noted, it is here that Joyce has disastrously failed. For those offences, which are not those upon which one could litigate, he should go. He probably knows this but (another ethical lapse) has been resisting the concept of leaping off the gravy train.

The barnyard farce of Joyce’s personal life has brought forth an amendment to the ministerial code of conduct, which specifically bans sexual relationships with staff. The real scandal is that a ministerial code of conduct is deemed necessary in the first place. It’s clumsy and dangerous anyway, since it encourages those to whom demerit is a notional concept to take the view that something dodgy is OK if it’s not precisely disallowed in the code.

But the real bottom line is this: If you’re incapable of defining what’s right and what’s wrong, or worse, are unwilling to bother doing so, you’re not fit for any senior office, political or otherwise.



He’ll Always be a Winner

WAYNE GOSS 1951-2014

Queensland Premier 1989-1996

The time: Early 1990s. Place: Sanctuary Cove, Queensland, developed by the entrepreneurial Mike Gore as Australia’s first “integrated resort property” under its own, unique state act of parliament. Occasion: An outdoor concert by John Farnham in his Age of Reason years.

Among the guests, pressed in among the throng, were Premier Wayne Goss and his wife Roisin. They were standing just in front of me. Queensland’s First Foot-tapper was discreetly rattling out the beat as Farnham performed. The Premier was enjoying himself.

He knew – because we were well acquainted and had already exchanged the customary smile-and-nod greetings we reserved for public occasions – that immediately behind him stood the chief leader writer of The Courier-Mail, also foot-tapping. Possibly he was pleased that it was not the chief gossip columnist. But – the delicious moment has stayed with me for more than  20 years – he did seem to memo himself that for once The Courier-Mail was keeping perfect time.

He was there in his official capacity. I was there unofficially, as I so often was, as chief handbag to the then chief spruiker for Sanctuary Cove. Doubtless The Courier-Mail’s chief gossip columnist was somewhere in the crowd.

It is one among many personal Wayne Goss anecdotes in my memory bank.

So it was very sad to hear today that Goss, 34th Premier of Queensland and the first Labor premier in 32 years had died of a brain tumour at only 63. That’s far too young for anyone to go, and it’s especially sad when it is someone who not only led the third most populous state in Australia but was also a very nice man.

Goss came to power when the atrophy and moral turpitude of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era finally proved too much even for Queensland’s astonishingly conservative electorate. By 1989 Bjelke-Petersen had gone (he left office in 1987) and most of his corrupt cronies had gone with him, but his successors Mike Ahern and Russell Cooper had failed to wipe away the stain.

But he didn’t win in 1989 because – to borrow an aphorism from a little earlier in Labor history – even the drover’s dog would have tossed the incumbents out. He won as well as he did because he had a program the voters accepted as correct, because he had demonstrated that he knew what he was doing, and because he was a nice man.

Goss probably never knew this (I didn’t tell him) but he was the second of the only two Labor leaders I’ve ever voted for. My natural political homeland is on the other side of the light on the hill, a now sparsely populated country where the anti-busybody constituency rejects the concept of government being big brother, big sister, or big anything.

The other was Gough Whitlam. He got my vote in 1972 because no one in their right mind could possibly have voted for poor, ineffectual, Billy McMahon or his dysfunctional coalition (I’d have voted for Gorton) and Labor presented a vision. It really was time. Goss got my vote in 1989 because the Nationals, frankly, had disgraced themselves and wouldn’t face reality, and Queensland would benefit from a change in its political colour.

This is not an obituary. Others have written very ably about the Goss legacy and his time in office. But I think I owe him a personal farewell. His most attractive feature – apart from his withering anger when appropriate – was his modesty. Nowadays we tend to use the word humility. It sounds rather Uriah Heep-ish. Modesty is a better term.

Goss had this quality in (modest) spades. He never pretended to know things he didn’t, or bang on about them. There’s a lesson there for others, including one other in particular who once ran Goss’ office.

One other anecdote comes to mind to illustrate the point. After one of the Goss Government budgets – it was late in term I think – and at the end of the arcane media “lock up” that accompanied this annual function, the assembled media had a final question.

Treasurer Keith De Lacy and his media advisor – my friend Ron Watson – had long departed, as had the Treasury boffins. It was a technical question, actually of no great impact, but Goss was plainly stumped for an answer.

He looked, poor chap, rather as one imagines a rabbit might look when confronted with a sudden, unexpected spotlight. Then he spotted me (I’d been in the lock-up too, writing the next morning’s editorial) and he evinced immediate relief.

“Richard, can you explain it?” he said brightly, or possibly hopefully.

Fortunately, I could. I did. The chooks shuffled off satisfied.

Vale Wayne Goss. You’ll always be a winner.

Wayne Goss died today, Nov. 10, 2014, of a brain tumour. He was first diagnosed with brain cancer 17 years ago.

The Problem of the Australian Labor Party


This analysis by HENRY ERGAS, in The Australian, July 23, 2012, is crucial reading. Here is his text:

AT the heart of Labor’s problems is its reaction to the 2010 election. In that election, voters swung to the Right, but thanks to Julia Gillard’s deal with the Greens, the government shifted sharply to the Left. Those opposing movements transformed a gap between Labor and the electorate into a chasm. And with voters sceptical of the Prime Minister’s trustworthiness from the outset, that chasm now threatens to swallow Labor whole.
To grasp the severity of Labor’s predicament, it is important to understand just how extraordinary Gillard’s move to the Left in 2010 was. Consider a scale going from zero to 10, where zero is furthest to the Left and 10 to the Right. For the advanced democracies, statistical analysis shows a one-point movement in the electorate’s positioning along that scale is generally associated with a two-point movement by the government in the same direction.
There is, in other words, an amplification effect, matching movements in the electorate’s positioning with even greater movements in the stance of government. This occurs as incumbent governments, if re-elected, respond to shifting public views. The amplification is even greater when governments change, as the leading parties tend to be considerably further from each other on the Left-Right scale than are voters.
But Labor broke that pattern in 2010. The Australian Election Study, which asks voters not only who they voted for but also the reasons for their choice, shows public opinion in that election veered Right on crucial issues.
In 2007, for example, 47 per cent of the electorate preferred more social spending to a decrease in taxes; by 2010, the share of the electorate preferring more spending had declined to 34 per cent.
At the same time, the proportion of the electorate believing unions have too much power increased from 37 per cent to 49 per cent, its highest level since 1996. And the proportion viewing climate change as a serious threat collapsed from 53 per cent to 19 per cent.
As for asylum-seekers, the proportion supporting a policy of turning back the boats remained above 50 per cent, with barely one in four voters disagreeing with it.
That shift to the Right drove a wedge in the coalition Labor had successfully forged in 2007 between its traditional base and the Left-leaning inner city constituencies. Faced with that wedge, Gillard struck an unprecedented agreement with the Greens. She did so knowing voters view the Greens as being significantly to the Left: taking the scale from zero on the Left to 10 on the Right, on average, voters place the Greens at about three, while they place Labor slightly above four and themselves smack on five.
To make matters worse, Labor voters in 2010 considered themselves as being to the Right of Labor itself, so that the distance between their preferred position and that of the Greens was all the greater. That this would end in tears should have been obvious.
There were other danger signs. Gillard had a lower approval rating in 2010 than any federal election winner since Paul Keating beat John Hewson in 1993. Moreover, the proportion regarding her as honest was well below John Howard’s and less than half Kevin Rudd’s. The subsequent broken promises therefore merely confirmed widely held fears, pushing hostility to Labor through the trapdoor that makes trends in public opinion so difficult to reverse.
Little wonder Labor’s tactical ploys have proven ineffective in stemming the government’s loss of support. Echoing Karl Rove’s advice that George W. Bush “dance with the ones that brung him”, the attack on the rich was intended to galvanise Labor’s core constituency. But it is one thing to adopt a “back to base” strategy when your heartland is close to a majority, as was Bush’s; it is entirely another in the circumstances Gillard faces, with barely 16 per cent of voters regarding themselves as “strongly committed” to Labor, down from 26 per cent in 2007 and nearly 40 per cent in 1979. Under those conditions, the rhetoric of “class against class” could only confirm Labor’s move to the Left, alienating the strongly centrist voters who make up fully 60 per cent of the Australian electorate.
As for turning on the Greens, it misses the point. It is not Bob Brown, who they have never voted for, the enraged sans-culottes of western Sydney despise; it is Gillard. Already perceived as the untrustworthy leader of a dysfunctional government, the main effect of the Labor Right’s assault on Gillard’s chosen coalition partner is to further undermine her authority.
Finally, the notion that Rudd could save Labor is scarcely credible. Labor’s man of destiny in 2007, his greatest skill lay in creating crises worthy of a talent as extraordinary as his own. But the fundamental difficulty is not Rudd’s record or character; it is that even were he the messiah, the bloodletting accompanying such a change would be fatal so close to an election.
The objective conditions for a change in Labor leader are consequently not ripe: they are rotten. But that need not condemn Gillard to inactivity. Instead of aimlessly wandering the country, a ghost who will not recognise it is a ghost, she could still shift Labor back towards the Right. That is what she promised voters in 2010; that is what she failed to deliver.
Adopting the Coalition’s asylum policy would be a good place to start. Whatever its symbolic costs, it would take the issue off the table. As for the carbon tax, she could seek an immediate move to an emissions trading scheme with permits available at the world price. She could show a genuine willingness to address the Fair Work Act’s most obvious defects.
But whether Gillard is capable of changing course is hardly certain. Kicking away the ladder takes more than the streak of granite she readily displays; it takes intellectual stringency and political judgment she shows no sign of possessing.
Rather, trapped in a world view dominated by unresolved anger over the injustices of the Welsh valleys of her birth, Gillard has lost the aspirational voters who should have been her mainstay. Ominously for the future, ALP support among the young is now weaker and less stable than in any previous postwar generation, while the party has failed to find a common language with the upwardly mobile Asian communities that are the most rapidly growing group in the population.
Labor therefore seems set to wait for the end flapping and flailing, like dying fish on a deck. For ultimately, what is special to democracy is its insistence that it be the people who decide the direction in which the nation moves. Gillard ignored that in 2010; the consequences could haunt Labor for years to come.
(Copyright material posted on this blog for further reading and assessment.)

A Green Tinge is Common Sense

Bob Brown is the Australian Greens. Whether the present tense can convert smoothly to past, and the statement become “Bob Brown was the Australian Greens”, is a question Christine Milne and others will have to answer in due course.

More importantly for the moment, Brown is the most underrated politician in Australia. Others have noted that he fatally undermined Julia Gillard’s Labor government by suborning the Prime Minister into an alliance with the Greens she didn’t need after the August 2010 federal election. Labor and Gillard will pay a political price for that; its quantum is as yet unknown.

But the mainstream federal political parties cannot dismiss the impact of the Green vote. It is not just an environmental vote and far from being one simply for the tree huggers. The Australian Greens are just as dangerous for the Coalition as they are for Labor. This is not necessarily a bad thing: politics requires continuous renewal and Australia’s history is replete with examples of non-performing monopolies, duopolies, cosy little cartels, and idiotic, largely self-serving designs to take us back to the past.

It is far too early to say, and it is disingenuous to do so anyway, that the Green vote has peaked and that, with or without Brown, the party had already begun at least a cyclical decline. The Queensland and New South Wales state elections, which tossed out appallingly atrophied Labor governments, cannot safely be cited in support of that argument. Voters in both those states were on a mission to eliminate Labor as a state government party – these things are cyclical too and not confined to Labor – and not many of them wanted to bother stopping by the Greens on their way to punishing Labor.

At federal level, the parameters are different. Gillard and her government – in part quite unfairly – are the objects of opprobrium. Gillard’s broken carbon tax promise – Brown’s greatest poisoned chalice bequest – is fatal. The disgraceful refusal of the Prime Minister to deal as she should with NSW federal Labor MP Craig Thompson is yet another example of her fatal unwillingness to recognise unpalatable political fact.

But while Tony Abbott’s Coalition is riding high in the opinion polls, that doesn’t necessarily indicate they are a certain bet on Election Day, whenever that is.  It doesn’t matter of course that Labor characterises Abbott as “Mr No”. Public politics is all about scoring quick points – many of them vacuous – in pursuit of a catchy tabloid headline.  He does that well, chiefly, though he needs to keep himself in check.

Voters know that on the preponderance of legislation (which is after all the principal business of government – it’s not the morning news call) the government and the opposition are cooperative and mutually supportive. As Christopher Pyne said on Sunday (Insiders on ABC on April 15), the opposition has supported 87 percent of Labor’s legislation in the federal parliament.  The mortal combat is not on process and implementation; it is on winning the vote, on securing power.

Most people understand this. Many more Liberal-inclined voters than might be imagined do not in fact see the Greens as a fatal threat to themselves or to the nation. The same applies to many natural Labor voters. Mainstream politicians still cling to the theory that there’s a substantial rusted-on vote base. The clear signs of today’s politics indicate that this is not the case.

Under Bob Brown the Greens became a national force in Australian politics. It’s true they were assisted in this process by Cheryl Kernot’s treachery while leader of the other potential third force, the now defunct Australian Democrats. But it would wrong – and very foolish – to see the Greens as an aberration, an irritant that the combined electoral appeal of the major parties will eventually vitiate.

The argument over the carbon tax is an instance. It’s a foolish tax on many scores – not least in being just another tax imposed by government (any government, the point is not political) on its own fundamentally rapacious Peter and Paul programme that institutionalises a sleight of hand revenue versus spending regime.

Yet the related argument – that the world (which includes Australia, despite the efforts of some other fringe politicians to pretend otherwise) must move sensibly and as quickly as possible to fully renewable and non-polluting technologies – is one that resonates with almost everyone.

Brown’s political achievement swung off the back of this popular movement. He capitalised very skilfully on the innate common sense of the electorate. Voters don’t want a carbon tax (who would?) but they do want their government to move forward with emerging technologies.  Climate change cannot be denied (climate is a dynamic process that’s been with us ever since we cooled off a bit following the Big Bang) though you can argue over its direct cause and whether human activity has had any measurably deleterious effect. The policy imperative is clear, however: just as the climate changes, so must we adapt. Pollution is the greater threat, since it is immediate and – albeit on a relatively small scale in Australia itself – locally sited. Anything that reduces atmospheric emissions is to be welcomed, whether or not the underlying issue is seen by some as the threat of Armageddon-style climate change if nothing is done.

This is the genius of the political green movement, captured in spades by the former doctor from Tasmania who parlayed opposition to invidious development in his isolated island state into a national platform. His achievement deserves recognition, even if you do not think it deserves applause.

Bob Brown’s legacy, if new leader Christine Milne and deputy leader Adam Bandt prove to have the ticker to maintain it, is to have entrenched the Greens in Australia’s political landscape. For all sorts of reasons, however one chooses to vote, that is a good thing.