taking shot


Earlier this year my friend and colleague Andrea survived whooping cough.

I say survived because there were times between when she first came down with what she believed to be a cold and her eventual diagnosis that she really thought she would die.

“I would be having coughing fits every half an hour and they were just so violent. My windpipe would close over and I would have to just heave to get the most minuscule bit of air into my lungs.

“I actually keyed triple-0 into my phone because there were times I thought, ‘I am just not going to come out of this one’.

“After being told I had bronchitis and then croup, I went back to my GP for the fourth time and told him I thought I had whooping cough and he pretty much laughed at me.”

He wasn’t laughing a week later when he had to call her back into the surgery urgently after her blood test results raised the red flag of a highly contagious disease that is notifiable by law. It was at the start of the latest epidemic of whooping cough or pertussis to grip Victoria.

Since 1990, Australia has become the “world capital of pertussis”, according to health experts, with the highest number of notifications per capita in the world.

According to the National Centre For Immunisation Research & Surveillance, adults account for half of notified cases each year and are a major source of infection, but least likely to be hospitalised.

Between 2006 and 2012, infants aged less than six months accounted for 42 per cent (1832 of 4408) of pertussis-related hospitalisations. During this period, 11 baby deaths were attributed to pertussis; half of the victims contracted the disease from an adult member of their extended family circle.

It’s too easy to blame the tiny, but vociferous, anti-vaxxer lobby. The truth is, it comes down to widespread lack of public understanding and the complacency of a generation that has grown up unblighted by the shadow of dreadful diseases such as polio and the horrifying prospect of life in an iron lung or congenital birth defects caused by rubella contracted in pregnancy.

Immunity provided by the whooping cough vaccine, which also contains diphtheria and tetanus protection and is the final jab received through school immunisation programs, diminishes over the years. It stops completely after 10 years.

By the age of 25, most people will be unwittingly walking around without cover unless they have been given a booster because they have become pregnant or have stepped on a nail or cut themselves on rusty tin.

One nurse I know thinks it’s time for government health authorities to confront the public with the truth. “If only they could see a baby unable to breathe on its own so they had a breathing tube, and every time the child coughed – even with the ventilator pushing air in the child’s lung – the child would still go blue.

“Then we’d have to disconnect them from the ventilator and bag them and so on through the night. It is absolutely horrific to see and worse when it’s so easily preventable.”


parables v policies


It has been a year since we buried my old mum. Hers was the last local funeral performed by the Reverend Ken Parker.

How she loved Father Ken: a priest of great warmth, wit and intellect. I’ve a sneaking suspicion she timed her departure to catch him before he left the district for his coastal retirement retreat.

The diocese still hasn’t replaced him, installing in his stead a rather elderly locum.

The word down the aisles is that the church believes a dedicated minister is a luxury the community cannot afford.

Now, I’m not a church-goer myself, but I’d have thought a man (or indeed a woman) in a smock was a pretty basic requirement for leading what is by today’s standards a fairly healthy sized congregation.

But apparently priests’ insurance premiums have gone through the roof and it is not just because of the number of sexual abuse cases brought by members of the community, but because of the risk the clergy themselves face in going about their business.

An unreported court case in 2012 dramatically redefined churches of all faiths’ responsibility toward members of the ministry. It followed a former member of the clergy of the Diocese of Gippsland suing the local bishop and regional church trust for failing to provide a safe working environment after he was verbally assaulted and physically threatened by a drug addict and suffered a nervous breakdown.

The question at issue was whether the clergyman was a worker within the meaning of the Accident Compensation Act and entitled to relief under WorkCover.

County Court judge Chris O’Neill found the reverend was a worker and that his employer was the bishop.

The matter was appealed but settled before hearing for a sum undisclosed – reputed to be close to $1 million. It was paid by the church, although it was the bishop who was held liable in lieu of any incorporated entity.

On one hand it seems entirely reasonable that the church, any church, should be safe for all, but it got me thinking about the role of the clergy. Is it not in the job description to try to help the drug-crazed as well as the poor and needy? Is there not a certain element of danger inherent in keeping faith?

In the Bible lessons of my childhood memory, Jesus fed the hungry, ministered to the weak and ill and risked injury to assist people in duress. Where would He be under WorkCover and OH&S laws?

Could any number of “caution: wet floor signs” allow for the parting of the Red Sea?

Would He be obliged to say: “Sorry, I don’t do lepers!”.

The other day I watched as two men in high-vis clothes erected a new parking sign outside a government building. It was just a simple matter of unbolting one sign and replacing it with another.

But by the time they cordoned off the area, erected cautionary signs, surveyed the footpath, it took almost half an hour and probably involved several hours and at least half a dozen other people in total, including meetings, requisitions and authorisations.

No one just does anything any more.

You want a miracle? Hang on, just let me convene the miracle sub-committee.

Small wonder Jesus wept.



waltzing with ned


There are two names redolent of late 19th-century Australia. The first is Ned. The shamelessly mythologised thief and murderer Ned Kelly is a recurring motif in Australian art and literature. As far as bits of steel and popular culture go, his helmet is an image almost as ubiquitous as Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can.

Even before the bushranger and his cohorts were the subject of the world’s first surviving feature-length movie The Story of The Kelly Gang, written and directed by Charles Tait in 1906, there was a melodrama by Arnold Denham.

Ned was muse to one of Australia’s greatest painters, Sidney Nolan, inspiring 27 paintings in his Kelly series. Later, no lesser an idol than Mick Jagger would strut forward in 1970 to portray Ned in what was then the seventh film about this Irish convict son.

In the late ’70s there was also a rock opera written about the bushranger by Reg Livermore, while Johnny Cash wrote and recorded the song Ned Kelly for his album Man In Black.

Ned was the subject of Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel True History of the Kelly Gang and Robert Drewe’s earlier novel Our Sunshine, which was the basis of a 2003 film starring Heath Ledger.

Ned is also a recurring theme in the work of Haha, a Melbourne street artist, and even inspired the Tin Symphony in the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Now he is the subject of another musical.

Ned: An Ordinary Man, an Extraordinary Legend makes its world premiere at the new Ulumbarra Theatre in the fitting confines of the old Bendigo jail next month.

Concurrently, the celebrated Bendigo Art Gallery is running an exhibition called Imagining Ned, which features artefacts and ephemera alongside works by Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Adam Cullen and Norman Lindsay.

But if Ned is the man of the moment, then his partner, far more shy and elusive, must be Matilda.

This month marks 120 years since Banjo Paterson first publicly performed Waltzing Matilda in a small pub in outback Queensland.

While the exact etymology of the name Matilda as used to describe the swagman’s bundle is disputed, there is no doubt she’s part of the national psyche. There have been more than 700 recordings of the unofficial national anthem, ranging from classical covers to punk rock and yodelling.

In recent years it has emerged there was a love triangle behind the composition that led Paterson to jilt his long-time fiancée Sarah Riley after a scandalous flirtation with one of her best friends, Christina Macpherson. It was only in 1971, when some of her original writing was discovered, that Macpherson – great-great aunt of former Victorian premier Ted Baillieu – emerged as the co-author of Waltzing Matilda.

Now her ghost will be heard when The Man They Call The Banjo, a musical theatre production about the love story behind the song by Felix Meagher and Dennis O’Keeffe, has its world premiere at Little River this month.

So Ned and Matilda waltz on in the hearts and minds of another generation.

resurrect red pens

The car radio was tuned to an ABC station when one of those interchangeable psychologists with hyphenated names who have mastered the sound bite came on.“We have been responsible for the wussification of an entire generation,” he opined.

“Teachers aren’t even meant to use red pens to mark students’ work any more because it is considered too aggressive.”

It was a statement that resonated on many levels.

We have reached a point in our culture where we use ghastly words such as “learnings” but have become afraid to challenge and, where necessary, correct our children.

Recently I interviewed a musical theatre star who has hit her straps after years of rejection. Between gigs, she teaches and has been stunned by the number of students who unashamedly declared themselves to be triple threats.

“Triple threat” is a phrase that originated in Broadway musical theatre and refers to a performer who excels at all three key areas: singing, dancing and acting.

I got the sense that some of her “triple threat” students not only struggled to sing on key, some had two left feet and all the stage presence of a washing basket.

Yet they had reached their late teens or early 20s without anyone having dared to suggest they were anything other than stellar performers. Was it up to her to puncture the enormous balloons of their egos?

Talking to a group of students recently, I encountered a similar attitude of all-round awesomeness.

One young woman made it clear my insights were pretty much useless to her because, while I was a journo, she was going to be a writer. Seeking to find some common ground, I asked what writers she liked to read. “Oh,” she said, “I don’t like reading. I just like writing.”

Writing was her “passion” and, more than anything else, she liked writing about herself because she was, after all, so endlessly fascinating and blogged every day.

Self-confidence is one thing, but self-awareness and having a clear perception of your own individuality, including strengths and weaknesses, is every bit as important. It seems to me we have set up a generation for failure and disappointment, by sheltering and cosseting them to such a degree that they don’t know how to lose, how to compete or even board a bus alone.

A friend recently told me of a colleague who had finally allowed her 13-year-old son to catch the bus to school only because she had to go to an interstate conference, which meant she couldn’t drive him.

First, though, she had to have a test run. She dropped the boy at the bus stop, then followed the bus to school, where the boy’s father was waiting to ensure he alighted safely.

I don’t totally buy “the Generation Z and Gen Alpha are narcissists” trope but I do think that, while the most technologically savvy, they are also the least prepared for some of the uncomfortable realities of adult life.

By all means spend this school holiday ferrying the children to non-competitive activities and telling them they are stars.

Just do them a big favour and remind them there are at least 70 sextillion others in the universe.