sharks & trees


Wolf Creek 2 may have helped cement Australia’s reputation as a scary place, but it’s not damaged it.

International backpackers are flocking to the real Wolfe Creek crater in the West Australian Kimberley half-hoping to feel a tiny frisson of horror of the cinematic experience.

Most locals don’t need the barely fictionalised spectres of Ivan Milat or Bradley Murdoch to regard the bush warily.

Ever since the arrival of the First Fleet, white European settlers have been bushwhacked by their new environment.

With the landscapes of their minds filled with rolling English hills and the chocolate box prettiness of Europe, the earliest colonial artists struggled to capture the light, colour and vastness of the Australian interior.

Early literature reinforced anxiety with the recurring motif of white settler children lost in the bush.

It didn’t help new settlers to discover that the country was also home to a host of deadly creatures including nine of the top 10 most venomous snakes in the world.

Is it any wonder most of the population clings to the coastal strip, sandwiched between the deadly things of the interior and the deadly things of the sea?

But even here we are not safe.

This month an eight-year-old girl was killed and two other children and a teacher were injured when a large branch fell from a gum tree in the grounds of a Sydney school.

Less than two months earlier a four-year-old girl was killed and her mother paralysed when a branch came down while they were walking in a park in the central Victorian of Bendigo.

This has provoked an inevitable backlash with many councils reporting increased requests for removal of “dangerous” trees.

It doesn’t matter that many, many more people are killed – in many cases as a direct result of their own stupidity – by driving into trees while speeding, texting, affected by drugs, alcohol or fatigue.

In the face of the community’s helpless anger, eucalypts have become the pit bulls of suburban parks and gardens to be culled like the sharks off the coast of Western Australia.

But it’s not flora or fauna that are our most dangerous enemies.

As Sea Shepherd’s Australian director Jeff Hansen said at one of the many rallies to protest the WA Government’s shark cull of the Great White: “If you want to know what causes the most destruction in terms of the ocean – you only need look in the mirror.”

The Great White is the doctor of the ocean. It helps maintain the balance of the underwater world – it’s natural habitat, not ours.

To kill them impoverishes the ocean upon which we rely for our own survival.

The people killed by sharks should be put in perspective of those who are not.

Similarly, if a branch falls in an empty park, no one would fear it.

It’s more than than 120 years since Ethel Turner penned the The Seven Little Australians in which the beautiful, feisty Judy sacrificed her life by throwing herself bodily over the baby of the family to protect him from a widow maker.

The tree, however, was not the root of the problem at the heart of this classic Australian story. It was the pride of the patriarch Captain Woolcot who set off a chain of events which culminated in tragedy.

More contemporaneously, as Wolf Creek 2 reminds us, the worst kind of shark is man even if we can’t always see it for the trees.



cats in hats

Greta Balsillie and Kit the 20 yr old cat Pic Brendan McCarthy 280508

*Photo by Brendan McCarthy

Anyone who has ever worked with a photographer will be familiar with the refrain: Just one last shot!

Some journos have been known to roll their eyes in sympathy with subjects folded into poses by some fiendish photographers’ origami while being told to “relax and look natural”.

But, really, reporters are just as bad.

The world is arguably a safer, more dignified place now that photographers and journalists up against a 24-hour multimedia news cycle have less spare time to collude.

Take for example this photo of a cat in a hat taken by my mate, Walkley award-winning photographer Brendan McCarthy

Kit – the cat in question – was about to turn 20; a goodly age and, while not extreme, beyond the average life expectancy of an indoor domestic pet cat.

It was with the full consent of owners Greta and John that we put the hat on the cat for a story titled Party Animals about people celebrating their pets’ milestones.

Kit seemed strangely oblivious not only to the hat, but the flame of the candles and we all suspect that – while in no apparent pain – he had cat Alzheimers at that point.

Several years on, this makes me think of my mum’s nursing home and the wisdom of putting party hats on old people, but that’s another story.

Kit, none-the-worse for the experience, went on to eat much of the cream off the specially-commissioned cake and live another two years whereupon his loving owners had him cremated.

He’s sitting on the mantel awaiting the day he rejoins them.

Only now there is another feline in the family and Greta jokes there may be “more cat than me when they scatter all the ashes”.

Where is this going, you wonder?

It’s meeting people like Greta and John and cats like Kit that’s the real joy of this job.

For me it’s not politicians, not celebrities, not the headlines, the terrible tragedies but the small stories of suburban life that are fascinating.

They say we can never really know what goes on behind closed doors, but journalists – blessed with a professional pass key – often get a pretty good glimpse.

Pick a door, any door.

Just this week I’ve interviewed a successful small businesswoman who, having pre-purchased her own coffin, uses it as a coffee table in a Gothic-themed living area featuring a life-sized sensor movement-activated zombie and a black fridge.

Yet, from the outside, her home in a brand new estate looks as blandly beige as its neighbours.

Then, travelling to another job, I spied in the front yard of an outlying property a life-sized giraffe peering into the second storey window of the house.

Now most people would consider entering a stranger’s property to quiz the occupants about giant garden ornaments downright rude, if not trespassing.

Fortunately Leon and Menya were happy to explain how they decided to commission a six-metre tall giraffe as a retirement gift to themselves after ruling out an overseas trip because they didn’t want to leave their pet dogs.

Gerard cost $10,000, but they reckon he’s worth every penny because every time they walk into the kitchen or lounge room and see him looking back in like something out of Africa they feel happy.

People … every one of of them with their very own story… priceless

* Photo by Brendan McCarthy first published Bendigo Advertiser May 31, 2008

blue collars v blue ties


Even after saving SPC Ardmona at the 11th hour Denis Napthine is probably feeling as sick as a parrot right now.

Leading a minority government at the mercy of mercurial MP Geoff Shaw and staring down the barrel of an election in November, he must be wishing Labor had stayed in power federally.

At least he would have been able to talk to them about Ford, about GMH, about Toyota, about SPC Ardmona … about Alcoa, the latest manufacturer to buckle announcing closure of its Pt Henry smelter.

It was the ousted federal Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella who gleefully asserted that Australia was losing one manufacturing job every 19 minutes under the former Labor Government.

No one seems to appreciate that is actually an achievement!

The UK is losing one job a minute or, put in real worker terms, that’s more than four jobs every minute of every 38-hour working week.

The great irony was that while the Liberals swept to power, Mirabella ultimately lost her own job because of a grassroots campaign by people who believed she wasn’t looking after her electorate properly.

But the Abbott Government, barely six months in office, has failed the nation.

The fall-out from the closure of Toyota, Ford, General Motors Holden, will not be limited to the 6900 directly employed in their Victorian factories and 1600 others likewise employed in South Australia.

It will not stop at the estimated 33,000 people working for companies small and large which supply the automotive industry – up 70 per cent of which are based in Victoria.

There will be job losses to in firms contracted to provide catering, cleaning, stationery, businesses that arrange their travel, small shops in the neighbourhood that sell workers souvlakis, fill their prescriptions, sell them Lotto tickets, and it will sweep across from Geelong to Carrum Downs.

Ultimately it will cost way more in unemployment benefits and lost tax revenue to support these people than the manufacturers were seeking from Government.

Since when did we become so snooty about what kind of industries received subsidies?

We seem to have progressed from the casual arrogance of Paul Keating’s observation “did we ever hurt anybody by liberating them from the assembly line” to downright antipathy toward blue collar workers.

Yet, the mining industry received $492 million in direct subsidies in 2012, but with many tax concessions for companies owned by our richest individuals it is estimated that the actually amount by which the Australian public underwrites mining each year is ten-fold that.

The taxpayer also subsidises the banks by up to $7.2 billion a year. That’s right, the banks!

A better question is what isn’t subsidised in Australia – including politicians’ generous superannuation schemes.

Why is it sweet for the Federal Government to give $16 million to Cadbury to tart up a chocolate factory in Hobart when its parent company Mondelez International made a $1.5 billion profit last year and not co-invest in the Coca Cola Amatil-owned SPC – the biggest employer in Shepparton.

There’s an election due in Tasmania. Tell me there’s not something Willy Wonka there!

What is happening in Australia right now to the manufacturing sector is not about politics, it’s not about abstract application of classic neo-conservative versus Keynesian economic principals, it’s not about control.

It is about people and communities and what can be done to best protect them.

Yes, we can all work on long-term blueprints to nanotechnology ourselves into economic nirvana, but right now society still needs these jobs.



aging disgracefully

Jaky O 2

The letter from the health fund was a master work of diplomacy.

Still I wasn’t sure whether – having just recently turned 50 – I should laugh or cry.

Was this another example of actuarial tables determining yet another area in which – owing to my advancing age – I’d become suddenly incapable?

Had some specialist accountant overnight switched my ovaries to off?

My 68-year-old husband who, not entirely incidentally had a vasectomy more than 30 years ago was just plain cross, calculating we could have saved $3000 over this time.

Currently, your hospital cover includes benefits for pregnancy,” the insurer wrote. “From March 1, 2014 we will offer your exact same level of hospital cover, but without pregnancy.

We think you will prefer this option which is why we will automatically switch you across to this cover.

This means you will be paying approximately a 5 per cent lower premium.

You don’t need to do anything,” the letter concluded in bold type.

The unwritten implicit being … especially not get pregnant.

Heavens! The name’s not Mary … even supposing I wanted to I couldn’t even legally adopt my first child after age 45.

Now, I admit becoming a little sensitive about my age since renewing our mykis and mine was also handed back stamped with an ‘S’.

That’s four return tickets a year free” said experienced pensioner with a wink and a nudge.

I thought briefly about cashing in on this mistake.

But, as technically you also have to have an aged concession card ready to show the conductor, I reasoned I’d never get away with it.

Far worse though was the prospect that I might.

But, I’m only 50, I wailed.

As the population ages we are being forced to redraw the lines on what constitutes elderly in all respects.

In 1901 only 4 per cent of Australians were aged 65 or older; today it’s over 15 per cent and projected to increase to 23 per cent by 2041.

At the time of the 2006 Census, there were just 3154 people age 100 or over in the whole country. By 2020 the number of centenarians is expected to exceed 12,000  – the Queen, who’s no spring chicken herself, will have to set a higher bar sending out those congratulatory cards.

My husband and I are pleased to know that you are celebrating your 150th birthday … “

As we live longer people will need to work longer with the pension age to rise to 67 for both men and women by 2023.

Yet legislation is not keeping pace with workers’ compensation payments and income insurance reaching an expiry date at 65 in most instances.

There are more than 140,000 unemployed Australians aged between 50 and 64 receiving the Newstart allowance from Centrelink, but discrimination against older workers continues.

About one-third of older people who have given up looking for work say it is because employers think they are too old.

All the more reason to applaud American Apparel then for adopting 62-year-old actress Jacky O’Shaughnessy as the new face of its lingerie line.

So what if I no longer qualify to enter the Royal Military College, to become an airforce pilot, a contestant on Australian Idol or even join Australia’s skilled migration program.

A gal can still have goals.

journey’s end

luggage full and ready to travel

If one more person speaks of going on a journey without actually holding a passport or at least an overnight bag I’m gonna scream.

Just recently an old colleague told me of the “journey” he’d been on since he woke up partially blind one morning and doctors discovered a clot behind his right eye had robbed him of sight.

It’s OK, they operated, and after open heart surgery he can see again.

But, mate, that’s not a journey.

That’s a nightmare!

Then there’s another associate who, after years of sloth, has simultaneously taken up jogging and blogging and now preaches fervently about his journey to well-being and the marathon of the mind.

Puh-lease, you just ran round the block a couple of times.

With roots in US celebrity therapy speak and West Coast ashrams, “the journey” spread across the globe like wildfire in the mid-noughties and now substitutes for any experience from spiritual enlightenment to weight loss.

Suddenly we’re all metaphorically on the move.

And it’s not like we’re going to the seaside either.

Take “life’s a journey”. Yep, last stop – crematorium!

Why can’t we at least go somewhere nice?

When businesses speak of taking shareholders on journeys and politicians invite the public on journeys it’s a non-transferable ticket to tough times.

Incidentally, if Christopher Pyne pulls up outside my local school any time soon on the road to curriculum reform there’s no way I’m getting in the car with that strange little man.

The overuse of the phrase has become so acute that X Factor mogul Simon Cowell last year banned contestants using it.

I hate people saying ‘you’re going on a journey’ because you’re not going on a journey. You’re on a talent show,” Cowell growled.

But let’s not stop at the journey. Let’s throw in “the dream”, “passion”, “passionate”, “wellness” and “mindfulness”.

Since when did the whole world sound like they had picked up the Dummies Guide to Deepak Chopra at the newsagent’s till?

Now, this is a guy who really does go on journeys – first class all over the world, paid for by the same people who pay for the “premier hotel of his choice” and the escalating “honorarium”.

The guy is so enigmatic that he’s the Nostradamus of the New Age.

The best way to get rid of the pain is to feel the pain. And, when you feel the pain and go beyond it, you’ll see there’s a very intense love that is wanting to awaken itself,” Deepak says.

Be sure to remember that next time you drop an anvil on your toe.

There’s this site which generates Deepak Chopra quotes from random words in his Twitter stream and honestly it makes at least as much sense as his official utterances.

Take for example “Self power is the continuity of intrinsic destiny” or “The physical world expresses total reality.”

Sounds so wise, doesn’t it?

Of course we’ve arrived at this point just as social demographers predicted.

Driven by the Baby Boomers who now have enough money to seek meaning for lives spent making it, we’re trying to tend to the overgrown gardens of our souls.

Why then do I feel like I’m being taken for a ride?

Perhaps … hrm, hrm … because I’m a journey-least.