Cyclone Malcolm, image used with permission from the website

John Clarke has died of natural causes while bushwalking in Victoria’s Grampian Mountains. Clarke, best-known for the long-running ABC political skit Clarke & Dawe, was 68.

Sad way to start a week, hearing about the demise of Mr John Clarke, Dip Lid, PhD in Cattle (Oxen), advisor and comforter to various governments. Still, we like to think he is now having a celestial ale with the likes of Murray Ball, Bunny Walters and Phil Garland.

Clarke, the same age as your correspondent, initially found fame in his native New Zealand by creating the iconic gumboot-wearing, singlet-clad Kiwi farmer, Fred Dagg, father of seven boys, all named Trev.

John Clarke had a long and varied career in Australian film and television. He wrote film scripts, starred in films (he was the voice of Wal the dog in Footrot Flats), and was a regular on television in the 1980s and 1990s, including The Gilllies Report and a series he wrote and starred in, The Games.

He also wrote the original script for The Man Who Sued God, starring Billy Connolly. Don Watson wrote the final screenplay, but as movie reviewer David Stratton observed, Clarke’s ultra-dry approach to satire (exemplified in the Olympics spoof, “The Games”), can be detected at the heart of the film.

Clarke was best known for his ‘mockumentaries’ – satire in the form of the television interview. His long-running collaboration with Bryan Dawe first ran on the Nine Network in 1989 then was relaunched in 2000 on the ABC’s 7.30 Report.

For 27 years John Clarke and Bryan Dawe continued to broadcast a weekly satirical interview in which prominent figures spoke about matters of public importance. John pretended to be someone he wasn’t pretending to be and Bryan, the straight man, contained his frustration.

They outlived other ABC attempts at satire including The Roast, The Glass House and Good News Week, all axed or moved to short-lived stints on commercial TV.

Satire, rare as a hen’s pecker

Sharp, subtle satire is thin on the ground in Australia. Good written satire is rarer still. Toowoomba residents might remember Sir John Branscombe, a satirical writer of merit hiding behind a pseudonym and a pith helmet. Branscombe used clever anagrams to pillory 1980s-era politicians with his series of letters from the remote mountain village of Motowoboa, ruled by one King Elvic. It’s a shame no-one has revived this subtle style of satire, where you get away with a lot by inventing a Swiftian world that vaguely resembles the one you live in.

When Mad as Hell won a Logie in 2016, Anthony Morris (SBS) asked whether Australian satire was on its way back or too far gone to be saved. Morris took us back to 1966 when the Mavis Bramston Show won three Logies, arguably the last time we had good satire on Australian TV. Twenty years later came the Gillies Report (aided and abetted by John Clarke and Brian Dawe). The 1980s was a period when comedy spiced with satire prevailed – the Aunty Jack Show, the Norman Gunston Show, Rubbery Figures and Australia, You’re Standing In It.

It’s easy to dismiss the Logies as a popularity contest,” writes Morris. “But comedy is meant to be popular – if nobody’s laughing, then it’s not working.”

“Put another way, Rove McManus has 16 Logies, including three Gold; The Chaser team has none.”

Last year, Mad as Hell and Gruen won Logies which sums up the state of satire in Australia, not counting in this context the Clarke & Dawe Thursday spot on the ABC.

When inducted into the Logies Hall of Fame in 2008, the then 60-year-old John Clarke typically quipped: “I’m inclined to regard this as a youth encouragement award. I’m deeply grateful and will do what I can.”

The final episode, maybe

Good evening Prime Minister and thank you for coming in at such short notice.

My pleasure, Bryan, or should I say my sadness for your loss.

Not just my loss Prime Minister, also John’s family and the people of Australia who admired his keen sense of political satire.

And his virile baldness, Bryan, although I never quite got his pretending to be me, or Tony, or Julia, or the little bloke from Queensland. He didn’t look like any of us or try to sound like us.

Yes but he got away with it through deadpan humour and taking on some of the traits of the person he was impersonating.

Quite, Bryan, but why am I really here?

We wanted to ask you about your trip to Papua New Guinea.

What trip to Papua New Guinea?

You know, across the waters from Cape York, where you keep asylum seekers locked away, out of sight and mind.

Oh that Papua New Guinea.

You’ve been accused of interfering in PNG’s sovereignty by visiting just a few days prior to a general election.

Well the ABC said that. I never said that.

They also said you were ‘tight-lipped’ over the fate of refugees held on Manus Island, even when a PNG court has ruled that their detention on Manus is illegal.

I don’t know about tight-lipped. It’s just the way God made my face.

You congratulated Papua New Guinea for making “significant progress” in resettling 1,000 asylum seekers who are in their fourth year in PNG. We’re hearing that fewer than 20 have been resettled, is that right?

Well I’m not there now, Bryan. It’s very hard to know what’s going on when you’re not actually boots on the ground in PNG. As they say in the Highlands, Mi no save nating long dispela samting! Nice touch providing Niugini Gold in the green room, by the way.

And then you went on to India for what were said to be business meetings. Was one of those meetings with executives from Adani?

Oh good try, Bryan. No, we try very hard to stay out of State government affairs and if Queensland wants Adani to build an export coal mine in their State, good luck to them I say.

So you did meet with Adani?

Don’t put words in my mouth Bryan. As I said, it is State government business, even though the Federal Environment minister has the last word on approvals.

So is he going to approve it?

Early days, Bryan. Early days. But now let me ask you a question.

Oh, well, why not?

Many of my colleagues have been fans of Clarke & Dawe, for years, Bryan, years. They have all the boxed sets from the ABC or their own private copies. Sometimes we watch replays before cabinet meetings. You’ve become famous, but now you’re a man down. What are you going to do about that?

Someone will step up, Prime Minister.

(Waggles eyebrows and makes like Groucho Marx). I like to follow the horses, Bryan. But the horses I like to follow also like to follow the horses.

Don’t give up your day job, Prime Minister. Thanks for coming in.

The pleasure and the sadness was all mine.


Photo of PO Box Warburton (Vic) by Mick Stanic

Some of my rural readers have been writing impassioned letters about a troubling domestic issue (the rising cost of renting a PO Box).

“Dear Mr BobWords, (wrote Perplexed Pensioner of Reeseville)

“When we knew we’d be moving to Maleny, we applied for a PO Box. “When we arrived here on Dec 22nd, 1993, the post office was still in the old house on the corner of Teak St.

“They kept saying (once we presented ourselves in person), that there were no private mailboxes to spare, so we had “poste restante” status for quite a while. Once the new Riverside Centre post office opened, we were finally able to rent our new PO Box: the fee was $40 p.a. (1995-96).

“When I recently received the renewal notice for my standard P.O Box, I could see it was going to cost me $129. Frankly, it seemed a waste of a Pensioner’s Pittance. Australia Post offered a $5 discount if you paid before March 31st (but nothing for pensioners!)

“So, after almost 24 years I have let go of my town lifeline.”

Yes, we hear you, Perplexed Pensioner. We decided there was not enough mail arriving in our private mailbox to justify the expense.

Ironically, when we inquired about getting a six-month mail redirection, we found that these rates too would rise on April 3.

When reviewing essential household mail, I discovered that 80% of our bills and official communiques arrive via email.

In line with similar issues facing postal services in all countries, revenue has been squeezed by online transaction services. Moreover, operating costs in this labour-intensive business (Oz Post employs 36,000 people), keep on rising.

As always, Australia Post is constrained by its obligation to offer postal services to all, no matter where they live.

Next time you gasp at the cost of posting a letter or parcel, Australia Post’s 2016 annual report confirms that losses for its regulated postal service over five years now total $1.29 billion.

Increasing the cost of letter postage from 41c in 1989 to $1 in 2017 does not seem to have done the trick.

Nevertheless, Australia Post returned a profit after tax every year between 2012 and 2014. Though producing its first after-tax loss of $221.7M in 2015, it was in the black again last year ($36.4 million).

Email rules – for now

If I had to mail this newsletter to FOMM subscribers, it would cost more than $500 per week, including envelopes, stamps, printing and labour. That would mean I’d have to pass the cost on to you, dear reader, market forces driving me to embrace the profit ethos.

Australia Post’s letter volumes peaked in 2008, according to its 2016 annual report. In the eight years since, volumes have declined by 41% per letterbox. We have seen this happen in our private mail box too.

Perplexed Pensioner referred us to a blog by Anny, a calendar-maker. She took Australia Post to task in 2014 and again this year for what she sees as price gouging, including a list of PO Box price rises compiled from her records of invoices (from $55 in 2004 to $129 in 2017).

While price increases in recent years have been well above average annual inflation, increases have been smaller since 2014.

“From February, Post Office (PO) Box prices increased by an average of 2.7% across the product range,” an Australia Post spokesperson told FOMM. “Like many businesses, Australia Post is operating in a challenging economic environment with increasing costs and competition.”

Local correspondent Little Bird says the cost of private mail boxes is a can of worms for the minority of Australians who do not have street delivery.

“Because we don’t have street delivery we pay a discounted rate, but I think it’s still a bit rich when everyone else gets their mail delivered for nothing.

“Also, since we live out of town it also means they won’t deliver parcels out here. The Australia Post-aligned couriers won’t deliver here either. (There are some which contract to Australia Post and some which do their own deliveries). So the sender pays a courier rate to have something delivered and it still goes no further than the PO Box.”

Australia Post responded: “Residents living in areas that receive a street delivery service less than once per week can collect mail over the Post Office counter for free. As PO Boxes are an optional delivery service (they), may be eligible to lease a PO Box at a reduced rate.”

Hefty price increases are not uncommon after government-owned essential services are corporatised or privatised.

So let’s be clear about one thing – Australia Post is still 100% owned by the Commonwealth Government. However, since 1989 (when, incidentally, a stamp cost 41c), it has been run as a Government-Owned Corporation.

It is run very much along private company lines – many of its post office shops are privately owned and along the way Australia Post bought its own courier service (StarTrack) to compete with rival courier services.

The Institute of Public Affairs has lobbied for the government to fully privatise Australia Post and found supporters in the Productivity Commission and the Australian competition watchdog (the ACCC).

There are examples aplenty of countries which have done so. Britain privatised the Royal Mail in 2013. Japan Post, which became a government-owned corporation in 2003, was privatised in 2007 and listed on the stock exchange in 2016. Deutsche Post was privatised in 2000.

Australia Post was ranked fourth in a survey of the world’s best postal services, interestingly led by the government-owned and operated US Postal Service

While Australia Post competes with the digital world by offering an array of electronic services, most people just want to post a letter, card or parcel to someone and trust it will arrive within the week.

So while we have cancelled our private mailbox, we can still rely on the humble postie delivering to our letter box. They deserve a medal, going out in all weathers, dodging swooping magpies, skateboarders and hostile dogs. We were given updated figures that show there are 11,000 ‘posties’ servicing 11, 240 postal routes around Australia. Motorcycles are used for delivery on about 6,000 routes, bicycles on 900 routes and about 900 intrepid posties walk their routes, all delivering to 11.6 million locations.

On a round-Australia trip in 2015, we encountered a group of 40 men and women riding 110cc ex-‘postie’ bikes from Brisbane to Adelaide via Birdsville and remote desert roads. Members of the group paid about $5,000 each for the privilege. The cost included an ex-‘postie’ bike, all accommodation and support while en-route and a flight home. Riders were encouraged to donate their bikes to Rotary at the end of the ride.

This seems a worthier use of energy than complaining (futilely) about Australia Post and its ongoing quest for profit. You could instead enjoy a vicarious few weeks experiencing much what it must feel like to be an all-weather ‘postie’. You could send postcards to your friends from every destination (at $1 a time), confident in Australia Post’s claim that it delivers 96.2% of domestic mail on time.


Solar-panels-energy Photo by Bob Wilson

Solar energy is great – we’ve got eight panels on the roof, a hot water system and a portable panel in the caravan. Pretty useless on Thursday, though, with ex-cyclone Debbie sending heavy rain our way. It would be great if we’d had a battery bank under the house to store the energy from the sunny weeks we’ve been having.

But battery bank technology is yet to become affordable for the 1.6 million Aussies who have solar PV panels.

I recently wrote about Australia’s troubled National Energy Network. We cited economist Professor John Quiggin, who suggested governments buy back the power grid and give the people what they want: cheap and reliable energy.

Melbourne harmony singers Co-Cheol

A musician friend alerted me on Monday that not only was it his birthday, it was also International Day of Happiness. Once I’d finished doing cartwheels around the room in response to this spiffing news, I wished the dear boy a very happy birthday. As if that was not enough to get the cockles of the heart percolating, the next day She Who’ll Sing at the Drop of a Hat went down town to celebrate World Harmony Day.