The informal donkey voter

Eeyore's winter onesie
“Eeyore’ in his winter onesie! Photo by Penny Davies

On Saturday, an estimated 2.724 million Australians will either not cast a vote or will vote incorrectly, either by choice or by accident. I say estimate, because it’s my estimate, drawn from official Australian Electoral Commission statistics plus sums based on donkey voter research.

The AEC says there were 15.468 million people on the electoral roll as of March 31, 2016. That’s 94% of eligible voters, which means there are 978,933 people ‘missing’ from the roll. That’s a lower number than in 2013 (1.22 million), but it could still sway a tight election either way.

The second part of the equation is the informal vote, votes which for one reason or another do not get past scrutineers because the ballot papers have been filled out incorrectly or deliberately spoiled.

In 2013, there were 739,872 informal votes or 5.92% of enrolled voters, the highest proportion since 1984 (6.34%), which coincided with the introduction of above-the-line voting in the Senate.

According to Melbourne University’s Election Watch website, the majority of informal voters vote (1) only or fail to fill in all the preference boxes. Others use a tick or a cross instead of numbers. A few write their name on the ballot box (also a no-no). Some informal voters scribble slogans or graffiti on their ballot papers.

After meeting sources in dark corners of underground car parks, I can confirm that drawing penises is a favourite, suggesting (a) the voter thinks all politicians are dicks or (b) likes drawing penises.

The AEC did an analysis of informal voting after the 2013 election. The AEC estimates that just over half of informal voters meant to vote for someone, showing a preference for one or more candidates. But more than a third were disqualified due to incomplete numbering.

One alarming trend is a steady rise in the proportion of informal voters who put blank papers in the ballot box. This rose from 16% in 1987 to 21% in 2001, peaked at 29% in 2010 and dropped to 20% in 2013.

Meanwhile in Brexit

An analysis of the elusive 34% of Brits who did not vote in the 2010 election by Votenone observed that in the 2010 General Election, the UK total of protest and ‘spoilt’ votes was around 295,000, or 1% of voters. However, 34% of registered voters (16 million) just didn’t vote. Votenone advocate these people take direct action by doing just that, ie writing ‘None’ on the ballot paper.

“There have been petitions asking for ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) on the ballot paper for many years.  However, like the demand for votes for women in the early 20th century, success doesn’t come just from asking.”

The UK system is different from ours in several ways, not the least of which is that voting is not compulsory.

Meanwhile, the uniquely Australian phenomenon, the donkey vote, continues to ignore both the carrot and the stick, despite changes to the electoral system post-1984 which should have diminished the influence of the donkey vote. The so-called donkey vote is an anomaly of the preferential voting system. It describes the voter who simply numbers the ballot sheet from the left, or top down, without discernment.

Prior to 1984, the donkey vote was crucial in some seats as candidate names were listed alphabetically and party names did not appear on ballot papers. So numbering your candidates from the left meant that Aaron Aardvark, the Independent candidate for Aarons Pass, collected more votes than he ever thought possible. Some political pundits think the donkey vote is worth as much as 2% of any contest. On that basis, 309,360 votes will be wasted on Saturday.

Mr Shiraz found a 2006 study by the Australian National University which suggests the donkey vote is 1 in 70 or 227,114 votes.

If you want a clear example of how the donkey vote can skew results, look no further than the 2005 by-election for former Labor leader Mark Latham’s seat of Werriwa. There were 16 candidates, listed randomly on the ballot paper. In this instance the donkey vote was reflected in the high vote (4.83%) for Australians Against Further Immigration, a minor party who were placed first on the ballot. (Then again, maybe people meant to vote for them).

To compel or not to compel

The other slab of humanity missing at the polls is the 4.5% or so (696,060) people who are on the roll but don’t bother. A $20 fine applies if you are enrolled but do not vote – a potential $13.92 million windfall.

Australia is one of 22 countries where voting is mandatory, yet our voter turnout has been below 96% every year since 1946. In 2013, the figure was 93.23%; in 2010 93.22% and in the year of Our Kevin it was 94.76%. Nevertheless, we have the largest voter turnout of 34 OECD countries including the US, UK and Canada. In neighbouring New Zealand, where voting is optional, the turnout has only nudged above 80% once since 2002.

But getting back to our specific problem – how to engage the 2.724 million people who are apparently disaffected, uninterested, don’t understand, are too busy mowing lawns, chainsawing storm-tossed trees or having sex on polling day or misguidedly waste their democratic right in voiceless protest.

I heard Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull on radio yesterday urging people not to vote Independent as this could cause “chaos and instability in government”. Fair go Mal (and Bill), we’ve had five different PMs in six years, yet we only voted for two of them.

Meanwhile, a record 1.16 million people had taken advantage of pre-poll voting as of last Saturday (it was 775,000 at the same point in 2013). The speculation is that the increase in pre-poll voting (you qualify if you are going to be away from your electorate on the day, are 8kms or more away from a polling booth or have religious reasons for not voting on a Saturday), is because the government, in its wisdom, picked a date during school and university holidays.

In practical terms, however, nobody is enforcing these rules; you just get asked if you are qualified to vote pre-poll and if you say yes, then in you go. Rod Smith, a professor at the University of Sydney, who specialises in political parties and elections, told the Sydney Morning Herald electoral commissions encourage early voting.

“The categories are out-of-date and it is one of those instances where lawmakers are turning a blind eye to the way the legislation is being implemented.” Smith says.

The latest poll shows the Coalition is ahead of the Opposition 51/49, although other polls suggest 50/50 on a primary vote basis. The bookies have the LNP at $1.08, Labor at 8-1 and odds of a hung parliament at 4-1.

The challenge now is for someone to come up with what language guru Professor Roly Sussex calls a ‘portmanteau’ word (blending the sounds and meanings of two others, for example motel, brunch or Brexit), to describe Australia’s 2016 poll. Here’s a couple to get you started on election night: Texit, Sexit. Let’s hope there is no need to coin a post-election term like the one now widespread in the UK: Bregret.


A few myths about refugees

Sri Lankan and Tamil refugees
Sri Lankan and Tamil Refugees image by

My conscience would be burdened if anyone went to the polls on July 2 believing some of the persistent myths and misunderstandings about asylum seekers and refugees. First, let’s set out a few facts in the interests of perspective:

  • Asylum seekers are people seeking international protection but whose claims for refugee status have not yet been determined;
  • Australia is the only nation with a policy of indefinite mandatory detention for people it has identified as illegal or irregular arrivals. This policy was introduced by then Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating in 1992 (it had bipartisan support);
  • Refugees receive the same social security benefits as permanent residents, although they are exempt from the standard social security waiting period that applies to migrants;

These facts sit uneasily amidst the seriously heated debate between refugee advocacy groups and supporters of groups like Rise Up Australia, the Australian Liberty Alliance and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.

Many Australians believe (and resent) the story perpetuated by hoax emails that refugees receive more Social Security payments than permanent residents. You might also hear that refugees are given (free) houses, cars and big screen TVs, the latter one of the first things spotted on A Current Affair’s expose on Nauru. (Gasp. They have microwaves too).

There is also a persistent myth perpetuated by talkback radio jocks and right-wing commentators that our shoreline (all 25,670 kilometres of it), will be over-run if the current border protection policy does not remain in place.

Over-stayers outnumber boat people

In Australia, visa over-stayers greatly outnumber asylum seekers. According to an Immigration Department report, Migration Trends 2012-2013, 44,800 visitors and 10,720 students overstayed their visit, led by people from China (7,690), Malaysia (6,420), the US (5,220) and the UK (3,780).

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s statistical report for April 30, 2016 says there were 1,695 people in immigration detention facilities, including 1,509 in immigration detention on the mainland and 186 in immigration detention on Christmas Island. However, the report also states that there were 469 people, including 56 women and 50 children, at the Nauru Regional Processing Centre and 898 men at the Manus Island RPC. So in sum, the total numbers of people in detention (including on and off shore) at the behest of the Federal Government is 3,062.

Of the 1,695 people in detention on the mainland, 60% (1,025) arrived in Australia lawfully but were subsequently taken into immigration detention either for over staying or breaching their visa conditions. 548, or fewer than 40%, were ‘Irregular Maritime Arrivals’ (some terminology refers to these as ‘Illegals’).

On face value, Labor’s asylum seeker and refugee policies are not that far removed from those of the LNP.  Both remain committed to offshore processing, regional settlement and stopping people smuggling by turning boats away. However, Labor has a plan to provide $450 million over three years to support the UN’s refugee agency. Labor will abolish temporary protection visas, re-instate access to the Refugee Review Tribunal and abolish the Independent Assessment Authority.  Labor states it will also reinstate a statutory requirement for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to report on how many claims were processed within 90 days of a completed application being received. This ‘90 day rule’ was removed by the Abbott Government last year.

Labor also wants to increase Australia’s annual humanitarian intake from the current 13,750 to 27,000 per annum by 2025. The Australian Greens want to ramp this number up to 50,000, while the LNP aims to increase it to 18,000 ‘within a couple of years’.

In September 2015 the Abbott Government responded to the Middle East humanitarian crisis by announcing that Australia would take an additional 12,000 refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq.

In February this year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Canada’s exceptional response to Syrian refugees, resettling 20,490 in just three months. Labor called on Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to explain why, as revealed in a Senate Estimates hearing, that Australia had resettled only 26 Syrian refugees since the emergency intake was announced. A spokesman for Mr Dutton said the government was conducting rigorous security and other checks that could not be rushed.

Social Services Minister Christian Porter has since told the ABC (on April 6), that 187 refugees had now been resettled in Australia and an additional 1,600 visas had been issued overseas. Meanwhile, Canada’s intake of refugees from Syria topped 26,000.

The indefatigable Refugee Action Collective is staging one last peak hour vigil next Thursday outside Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s office on Gympie Road Strathpine. The aim is to bring the Minister to account and remind people of comments made on Sky News when he criticised Labor and Greens’ proposals to lift the intake to 27,000 or 50,000 respectively.

“For many people, they won’t be numerate or literate in their own language let alone English,” he told Sky News.

“These people would be taking Australian jobs, there’s no question about that.”

Greens lead refugees reform agenda

The Australian Greens is the only political party with a truly reformist answer to the asylum seeker/refugee question. The Greens say it is a better (economic) proposition to allow refugees to live in the community. The Parliamentary Budget Office estimates the average cost of allowing someone to live in the general community at $35,000, compared to $225,000 on Manus Island or Nauru.

The Greens’ plan to close down offshore detention on Manus Island and Nauru and to close ‘the worst’ Australian detention centres on the mainland and on Christmas Island. They would establish 30-day time limits on detention in Australia, with ‘periodic judicial review’ of any detention thereafter.

A few of the minor parties are less forgiving: The Rise Up Party says it would implement legislation that will send all illegal asylum seekers back to where they came from’.

Pauline Hanson’s One Nation has a policy of ‘zero net immigration’. By that is meant, if a migrant goes home, you let another one in. Sustainable Australia also has a ‘low immigration’ policy.

The Australian Liberty Alliance is running candidates in the Upper and Lower houses for the first time on a platform which includes stopping the ‘Islamisation of Australia’. You can read about the ALA here and watch their 15-second advertisement which has been banned from television. *

All you need is love (ra-ta-ta-ta-tah)

Sigh. It’s Refugee Week, did you know? I often wonder how this country lost its multicultural way after we welcomed and resettled 57,700 Vietnamese refugees between 1975 and 1982. Of these, only 2,100 or so were unauthorised arrivals by boat, although many more set out by sea and never made it to shore. The 1971 Census revealed there were just 700 Vietnamese in Australia.

Fifteen years later it was 80,000 and at the 2011 Census, the numbers of Vietnamese-born living in Australia rose to 185,039. Despite language barriers and religious differences (the main religion is Mahayana Buddhism), these new migrants were widely accepted.

Imagine an Australia without Luke Nguyen (chef and TV presenter), Anh Do (comedian), Nam Le (author), Caroline Tran (Triple J announcer), Hieu Van Le, (Lieutenant Governor of South Australia) or Vincent Long Van Nguyen (Parramatta’s Catholic Archbishop).

The Beatles were strongly opposed to the Vietnam War, or rather, western involvement in it. At the peak of the conflict, John Lennon wrote a famous song, which in Vietnam is known as Tất cả những gì bạn cần có là tình yêu.

*policy points drawn from the websites of political parties





Greens coalition bridge too far

Greens metaphor: Oresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark
Öresund Bridge between Copenhagen and Malmö photo by Fab-o-Paris

You may have missed my Facebook link to the story from the Guardian Weekly about the alliance between New Zealand’s Labour Party and the (Kiwi) Greens. The two parties drafted a one-page agreement with one specific aim – to defeat the Nationals and Prime Minister John Keys at the 2017 election. There is no suggestion of a coalition beyond that point, just a muscling-up to push the incumbents from office.

This seems like a fond hope. On the 2014 election result, Labour/Green would still be 730,389 votes short. Still, the NZ Greens hold more sway in the New Zealand parliament, holding 14 seats and taking 10.70% of the popular vote in 2014.

My one line suggestion on Facebook (“memo Bill and Richard”) apparently fell like pearls into the Facebook pigsty. Only one person ‘liked’ it. (This aligns with research that suggests few Facebook browsers click through and read to the end of a lengthy article).

Last month, Australian Greens Treasury spokesman and the only Green MP Adam Bandt said on Q&A that the Greens were open to forming a coalition with Labor. But Labor Opposition leader Bill Shorten said Bandt was “dreaming”.

“Labor will fight this election to form its own government and to form a government in our own right. Labor will not be going into coalition with any party,” he told ABC North Queensland.

The Australian Greens remain incensed about Labor’s ads which suggested they were doing a preference deal with the Liberals. The Greens have since said they will put Labor ahead of Liberal on how to vote cards in all but 11 seats, leaving the latter ‘open’. PM Malcolm Turnbull told ABC Online last Sunday the Liberal Party will preference the Greens last, or behind Labor. “This is a call that I have made in the national interest,” the PM said.

Labor confirmed it will direct its preferences to the Greens in the lower house. There are reports of Labor promoting the Liberal Party over the Nationals in the South Australian seats of Murray, O’Connor and Durack. The Sydney Morning Herald also reported this week that Labor is considering a deal with Nick Xenophon that could see the independent senator pick up three Liberal seats in South Australia.

But is it, as Ben Eltham suggests, trivial to focus on preference deals (which are after all just recommendation on how-to-vote cards), instead of policies?

Conor Little, research associate at Keele University wrote in The Conversation about the difficulties facing Green parties in coalition:

 “Large centre-left parties often fish from the same pool of voters and compete on similar issues as the Greens. As a result, the Green parties are very often seen as a threat to mainstream centre-left parties and vice versa.’’

On any level, Green politics is less influential in Australia that in many European countries and, as we have stated, New Zealand.

The Greens served as the junior coalition partner in Germany’s parliament in 1998 and 2005 and came fourth at the last election (beaten out of third by one seat). In the UK, the Greens polled more than 1 million votes, holding its one seat (Brighton) in the British parliament.

Nordic noir (or verte)

In Denmark, the Red-Green Alliance polled 7.8% of the vote and holds two seats in Opposition. Across the Oresund Bridge in Sweden, the Greens held 6.9% of the vote and 25 seats at the 2014 election, the fourth-largest party in the Swedish parliament.

I mention these two countries in particular as we have become armchair experts on things Nordic, watching acclaimed TV series including The Bridge, Borgen, Wallander and Unit One. So we now recognise useful Swedish words like ya (yes), nej (no), öl (beer) and kön (sex).

The word ‘Green’ can mean different things in global politics. Denmark’s Red-Green Alliance is the most socialist party in Denmark, advocating socialist democracy not just for Denmark but internationally.

Finland’s Green League has 15 seats in parliament after the 2015 election, having quit the coalition twice over approval for a Russian-backed nuclear power plant. Statistics Finland says the party won five more seats in 2015, its vote increasing by 1.3% to 8.5%. The League usually sits in the centre of the political spectrum, criticising both socialism and the free market. But it is also anti-nuclear, anti-conscription, pro same-sex marriage and takes the high moral ground that rich countries must lead others in mitigating the impact of climate change.

So it seems that as the various shades of Green in the world have gathered support and joined coalitions, some have stepped back from the more absolutist positions of their founders.

Conor Little says being in coalition is difficult for any small party. “Co-operating with (or in) a government is a balancing act and no matter how much they achieve, parties with only a few seats usually need to compromise on much of their platform.”

Sometimes the need to assert their identity leads these parties to end their coalition early, as the Australian Greens did, ending its alliance with Labor in February 2013. Likewise Finland’s Greens walked out in 2002 and 2014 over a nuclear power plant proposal. In 2002 the New Zealand Greens rebelled over the release of genetically modified organisms. As Little says, these moves tend to attract more support for Green parties.

Meanwhile, with just 16 days left until Australians vote, what is it about the Australian Greens that makes the LNP believe the party is a threat to the national interest? Perhaps this:

The Greens are the only party that understands that the economy must work for the benefit of society and not the other way around. We have a progressive plan where tax reform starts at the top by removing unfair tax breaks and wasteful subsidies for polluting industries. Not only will this help address the structural deficit of the budget, but it will force money away from tax sheltered locations like superannuation, housing and mining and into productive areas that will set us up for the new economy and more equitable wealth distribution.”

The party polled 8.6% of the primary vote in 2013, yet because of our preferential voting system, the Greens have only one voice in Parliament, although they have 10 seats in the Senate. In New Zealand, with a first-past-the-post voting system, the Greens have 14 seats in Parliament. In Finland, the Greens hold 15 seats with just 8.5% of the vote.

The Australian media rarely portrays the Greens in a positive light. In one transparent example, a page one article in The Australian in April 2015 argued that only the “godless and rich” voted Green. An analysis of seats in the 2015 NSW election by Mark Coultan concluded that atheists and agnostics were more likely to vote Green, as were the wealthy.

Coultan said the primary Green vote averaged 17% in the top 10 electorates ranked by proportion of households with income of $3,000 a week or more (based on 2011 Census). In the top 10 electorates with the lowest proportion of rich families, the primary Green vote was 10.9%. Coultan added that this figure was inflated by outstanding Green results in the anti-CSG electorates of Tweed and Lismore.

Electorates ranked one and two for the number of atheists, agnostics, humanists, rationalists and people with no religion (Balmain and Newtown), were among the three seats picked up by the Greens in NSW.

So how relevant is this report and did it really warrant page one treatment? Judge for yourselves (i) the original yarn and (ii) a lengthy dissection by blogger Dr Kevin Bonham.

Having said that, we’re off to prune the roses before the fickle finger of climate change brings on unwanted early buds.

Rainy day at the ballet


Racheal Walsh and tap dancers performing during Queensland Ballet's Strictly Gershwin
Queensland Ballet guest dancer Rachael Walsh stepping out with tap dancers in Strictly Gershwin. Image courtesy of Queensland Ballet (David Kelly 2016)

So it’s not ballet, but last Thursday night I’m down at the local RSL supporting a new monthly music venture, Club Acoustic. Everyone gets charged $5 admission and then a succession of musicians and poets each have a 15-minute spot to entertain the punters. The evening closes with a guest band and people get up and dance. Organiser Regalia (not her real name), has a novel approach to raising money for the musicians. She asks people to ‘sponsor’ someone they particularly like and then at the end of the night the door takings and bonuses are recycled and most of the musicians get their $5 refunded. Some even end up in the black. It’s called subsidising the performing arts.

On Saturday, we took a punt on the wild weather warnings and drove to Brisbane for the matinee of Strictly Gershwin, a Queensland Ballet production. We are subscribers, (thanks to She Who Books Tickets Early), so the five of us ended up in the second row from the front. I became aware we were seated on top of what would normally be the Lyric Theatre orchestra pit. Yet I could hear an orchestra tuning up back-stage. Then the curtain rose and there was the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, spread across the back of the stage like a big band from the 1920s.

As is the way with professional shows, musical supervisor and conductor Gareth Valentine got stuck right into it, stirring the ensemble through a lively Gershwin overture. Pretty soon the dancers came on stage and a completely absorbing spectacle unfolded. Not just dancers and an orchestra, but a piano soloist,  four singers, tap dancers, two people on in-line skates, two French ladies wheeling prams, can-can dancers and a gendarme on a bicycle. One of our ballet companions, an experienced set designer and theatre producer was a bit dubious about the in-line skaters, imagining one or both of them ending up in our laps. But as is almost always the way with the world-class Queensland Ballet, there were no mis-steps or wardrobe malfunctions as up to 25 dancers negotiated the space between the orchestra and our laps.

Splendidly done!

One of the most popular performers of the afternoon was retired principal ballerina Rachael Walsh making a guest appearance, deftly stepping (in heels) alongside tap dancers.

As Anne Richards once famously said: “Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”

For those who enjoy and understand ballet, this 5-star review by Elise Lawrence will give you the full flavour.

Did I mention the whole season, which ended on June 4, sold out? We subscribed in September last year and even then had to pick a matinee! Did I also mention our average subscriber ticket price per ticket for four ballets was $77.50?

People who bought individual tickets for this show paid as much as $140, but even then, what value! Sitting there in row 2BB, soaking up this world-class spectacle, I wondered how the hell they can afford to put this on.

As is my wont, I went off to investigate.

Downsize orchestras or provide more funding?

The Queensland Symphony Orchestra is one of six state-based professional groups that perform a wide range of classical and popular material for all age groups and interests. The QSO states in its 2015 annual report it employs 88 full-time musicians. This year the QSO scheduled 157 concerts over 47 weeks, performing on average at least three times a week. The Brisbane-based orchestra also takes on a free community engagement program and an extensive state-wide education program that connects with 30,000 students. So who pays for all of this? Certainly not the 1.6 million QSO punters alone.

The QSO, like many other professional performance troupes of this scale, is supported by Federal and State government funding, along with funds provided by sponsors, donors and supporters.

Federal and State funding ($11.147 million), accounted for 64% of the QSO’s budget of $17.516 million in 2015.

Ticket sales contributed 15% ($2.59 million) with philanthropy (sponsorships, donations, bequests, memberships) contributing $2.863 million. Employee costs and artists’ fees and expenses came to $11.981 million.

Queensland Ballet, itself supported by sponsors, subscribers, donors, and state funding, employs the QSO on a per-performance basis. Most orchestras are available to outside troupes needing their skills. A spokeswoman said that when QB is unable to have the orchestra, either through availability or budgetary constraints, they use QSO recorded music.

It’s a good sideline for the QSO, which earned $852,010 in orchestra hire fees in 2015. You might recall over the years the QSO accompanying artists as diverse as Harry Connick Jnr, k.d Lang, Dionne Warwick, Andrea Bocelli, Pavarotti, Anthony Warlow and george.

Unhappily for those who cherish State support for the arts, a recent article on the financial performance of Australia’s six orchestras shows the majority struggling to make an operating surplus.

Author Hans Hoegh-Guldberg compared the financial performance of the six state orchestras in 2013 with a decade earlier.  In 2003, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO), Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and the WA Symphony Orchestra (WASO) made profits.

Among the others, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra (TSO) almost balanced its books while the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO) suffered the worst result (-$855,000) followed by QSO (-$445,000).

In 2013, SSO was the only symphony orchestra showing a surplus apart from TSO (a small surplus of $1000).

However, there were significant fluctuations in the net result from year to year. In 2012, QSO showed a large net profit of $2.26 million and in 2013 a loss of $273,000, almost entirely due to a $3m+ decline in funding revenue. QSO posted a net profit of $622,369 in 2014 and $655, 080 in 2015

Here’s the (ahem) key problem: it is not possible to increase orchestra productivity through technology; it can only be done by reducing the numbers of players, as recommended in the Strong Report (2005). Fortunately, good sense prevailed and the Federal government chose instead to increase funding and maintain the current size of orchestras.

But how long can we stave off the day when someone called in to do a cost-benefit analysis goes home and tells his wife: “Honey, I shrunk the orchestra.”

By now you will see that our $77.50 per head for a two and a half hour Australasian premiere by the Queensland Ballet and the QSO was somewhat of a bargain.

Not to mention a quartet of professional singers and pianist Daniel Le (he tackled Gershwin’s ground-breaking Rhapsody in Blue with considerable élan, looking splendid under the spotlight in his white suit).

Musical Supervisor and Conductor for Gershwin, Gareth Valentine, himself a showman, performed an animated dance routine through the overture and towards the finale joined Kylie Foster in a piano duet (whilst still conducting the orchestra and vocalists).

Not a page turner in sight.

Queensland Ballet, led by Li Cunxin, relies on Government funding for only 25% of its annual budget. Impressive contributions from sponsors, generous subscribers, supporters and donors (up 81.49% on 2014) and ticket sales cover the rest. Queensland Ballet set a new box office record of $3.23 million in 2015. It’s hard to see the man known world-wide as Mao’s Last Dancer topping that in 2017 or indeed, a show the calibre of Strictly Gershwin.

But as George and Ira Gershwin would say: “It ain’t necessarily so.”


The demise of Page Turner

Paige Turner 02
Beth Allen turns the page for Wendy Harper, accompanying soprano Marina Poŝa at Lift Gallery

Technology’s great, except when it does you out of a job. My friend Spike trained in the 1960s as a hot metal typesetter, a printing technique dating from the late 1800s. This industry relic was replaced by phototypesetting, which produced columns of print ready to be ‘pasted up.’ This last bastion of the printing trade was made obsolete by digital newspaper publishing systems, the personal computer and desktop publishing software.

In the music world, the traditional role of page turner is threatened with obsolescence by the advent of clever new apps for Ipads and tablets, controlled with a foot pedal. You may have seen singers at gigs with an Ipad attached to their mike stand – foot pedal optional. This is the modern musician’s answer to the wind snatching your chord charts or lyric sheets from the music stand during the four bars between the end of the chorus and the next verse. The job of piano page-turner, however, is a little harder to render obsolete, because the pianist relies on a human being to know, by visual cues and musical knowledge, just when to turn the page.

Our photo today shows Beth Allen turning the page at a critical point in the aria La Maja y el Ruisenor (The Maiden and the Nightingale) by Granados for Wendy Harper, accompanying soprano Marina Poŝa at Lift Gallery.

This is old school and Beth, who is a good sport, puts up with her partner Kim’s jokes, introducing her as ‘Miss P. Turner!’

Just so you know, Page Turner is a Korean TV drama and there are at least two people who go by a similar moniker, one being Daniel Frank Kelley, aka Paige Turner or Showbiz Spitfire, an American drag queen, comedian and singer.

There’s more, but this is a family show, so I won’t be directing you elsewhere.

The classical music page turner does indeed have to read music, pay attention and not beat the pianist to the turn. Wikipedia describes the typical page-turner as ‘a friend or acquaintance of the pianist and preferably a pianist as well’. The job is a handy earner for music students; to wit, notes left on conservatorium noticeboards – “free-lance page-turner, available nights and weekends – attentive and reliable.”

Now there are Ipad apps which will turn the page for you, including Tonara for Ipad and Pageflip, an Ipad app which comes with a foot pedal. Ipads and tablets have become quite the thing among musicians and sound engineers. You may have been at a live gig and seen the sound guy wandering around the room, tablet in hand – that’s his mixing console.

My versatile musician friend Silas Palmer scored a gig last year accompanying octogenarian balladeer Kamahl on a tour of Queensland. They were using backing tracks, with Silas on whatever brand of grand piano was in residence at the various venues. I noticed he had a tablet on the music stand, where pianists normally put their scores.

“What’s with the tablet?” I asked after the show.

“Oh that’s just chord charts,” said Silas, “and the set list”.

But getting back to the human page turner, sitting patiently to the left of the pianist, watching and waiting for the moments (there could be dozens of turns, depending on the length of the piece), to show their skills. Some classical musicians scoff at the notion of using a tablet or Ipad, saying good page turners have a ‘job for life’.

Organist Michael Hammer, someone whose knowledge of page turning seems beyond reproach, has devoted an article (with photos) to the subject, leavened with a noteworthy sense of humour.

He advises page turners to ask the pianist to perform a “windmill’ with their arms so the turner can judge how far away to sit, given that some pianists can get a bit carried away. It is also important, he says, to watch the pianist to see where they are up to on the score.

“If he is short enough, you might be able to make out when he is at the top of the page. Despite their good looks, it is still advisable to look at the music and not at the pianist.” 

But on to more weighty matters

I came to this subject after pondering the business world’s most common response to declining revenues: making do with fewer people. Along the way, big business appropriated the words redundant (defined by as the state of being not or no longer needed or useful) and retrenchment (the act of retrenching; a cutting down or off, as by the reduction of expenses.) The meanings of these words are so closely entwined the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) considers them interchangeable. (Some, perhaps more sensitive, employers try to soften the blow by explaining that it’s the job, not the person that is ‘redundant’. However, given that ‘the sack’ is still the result, it is questionable whether this does actually make the ‘sackee’ feel less unwanted. (SWSLTHAS) (She who sometimes like to have a say.)

The hardest form of retrenchment is the list posted on the cafeteria wall of those whose jobs will go on (date). The softer form is what is known as ‘a round of redundancies’, typically offered to well-paid middle managers, those whom upper management may have identified as not delivering value for money. So they go home, do some sums on the back of an envelope, talk it over with their spouse and maybe go to work next day and say “Yes thanks, I’ll take the redundancy.”

Some big companies offer up to four weeks for every year of service, plus accrued holiday and long service leave entitlements. The trouble with waves of redundancies and retrenchments, they are often linked to companies doing it tough or going broke, usually at a time in the economic cycle when it is difficult to find another job, especially when your last position was made redundant. The word has some pejorative connotations that cannot be easily shrugged off.

According to the ABS, retrenchments peaked at 7.3% of employed persons in 1972, fell away to 4.1%-4.6% between 1986 and 1990, but rose again to 6.5% during the 1990s recession.

We can compare those historical figures (almost half of those retrenchments happened in the manufacturing sector, by the way), with the period 2000 to 2013, when the rate fell from 4.0% in 2000 to a low of 2.0% in 2008, before increasing sharply in 2010 to 3.1% and remaining at that level through 2012 and 2013. But it does depend where you live and work. The Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia had the highest retrenchment rates, harking back to February 2000 (6.0%, 5.4% and 5.1%).

The future for manual workers looks bleak. A study by real estate firm CBRE and capital management group Genesis forecasts that robots will make 50 occupations redundant by 2025.

And if you are training (or re-training after a redundancy), this Daily Mail report includes two handy lists: (i) which jobs are most likely to succumb (e.g. telemarketers, photographic process operators and tax preparers) and (ii) those occupations which may prove to be retrenchment-proof (e.g. chiropractors, orthodontists and supervisors of correctional officers).

Journalists did not make either list, which is surprising, given the recent flood/spate/outrage/raft of media redundancies. This scary story by Ross Miller in The Verge is cause to ponder the omission:


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