Take me to your leader – the quest continues

(Leader image, old man in park taking time out from politics and spin), Bob Wilson circa 1978

Imagine a flying saucer lands in your back yard and an alien (drooling or not) alights.

“Take me to your leader,” it telepathically commands, as it is from an advanced civilisation, intent upon savings ours.

“Aw yeah, mate.” (pointing). “That’s our leader over there, the one in the striped designer shirt, mingling with the homeless folk.”

If you dig around on the Internet long enough you’ll find lists of world leaders people would rather not introduce to their granny, never mind to an alien. The lists are usually described as ‘the 10 or 20 worst world leaders’ and include despots like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir.

Alas Malcolm Turnbull, PM of Australia; the only list I found him on was the ‘hottest heads of state’ leader ladder, languishing in 12th place behind total spunks like Canada’s Justin Trudeau, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, France’s Emmanuel Macron or Haiti’s Jovenal Moise.

One ought not to touch on politics when striking up conversations at Christmas parties. At one such event, I ventured that the Australian Federal Government was having an ‘Annus Horribilis’ and seemed incapable of making firm and sensible decisions.

I had voiced what I thought was a commonly-held theory, but soon found out what I should have known; on average, at least one-third of people voted for that motley group of indecisive dual citizens who went to work on just 64 days in 2017.

“So what do you think about Turnbull’s piss-weak energy policy?” I began at another Xmas do, when I probably should have said, “Strange weather for this time of year, don’t you think?”

That person moved away, but left me a clean run at the cheese platter.

From my point of view, the LNP in Canberra blundered from one disaster to another in 2017, momentarily making itself look good by introducing marriage equality laws, which in truth should have been enshrined in 1980-something. The poll was estimated to cost the taxpayer $122 million and then we endured weeks of angst while the same-sex marriage law was debated, after 61.6% of the 79.5% of people who voted had told them that’s what they wanted in the first place.

The great shame, or should I say sham, is that the Turnbull government, deliberately or not, distracted the people from more serious issues (climate change, the Adani coal mine, Manus Island), by turning the same-sex marriage debate into an expensive, non-binding referendum-style exercise. They could have used one of those 64 sitting days to have a free vote. We’d have achieved the same result and deployed the $122 million to more laudable outcomes (like finding emergency accommodation for the 6,000 or so Australians who sleep rough each night).

We’ve seen from recent State elections and Federal by-elections that the people are not happy with the mainstream parties. The drift towards the Greens on one side and One Nation on the other mimics the rise of populism the world over.

Political commentator Michelle Grattan, speaking at the launch of The Conversation Yearbook in Brisbane, said so many people in Australia are disgusted with politics they are ‘‘tuning out”

“People think (politicians) are behaving badly, because they are behaving badly. They (politicians) alienate the public – they are aware of it, but it’s beyond them to regain the people’s trust.”

Grattan said focus groups in north Queensland, ahead of the State elections, saw through Malcolm Turnbull’s ploy to cancel a week’s parliamentary sittings. This was ostensibly to allow the House and the Senate to resolve the citizenship issue and to work through the same sex marriage debate.

But here’s the thing: the NQ focus groups didn’t much like Malcolm Turnbull, but neither did they warm to Bill Shorten as an alternative leader.

The Queensland election continued a national, if not international trend: voters are fed up with mainstream parties and are casting their votes elsewhere.

In Queensland, 30.9% of first preference votes went to minority parties, while the informal vote was higher than average, at 4.58%. In the Bennelong Federal by-election, 10 minor parties grabbed 19.15% of the first preference primary vote, although that did not stop the LNP’s John Alexander (45.05%) taking the seat.

So what else happened in 2017?

While it wasn’t a party political issue, the rise of the social media hashtag #MeToo movement had its high point when Time Magazine chose #MeToo as its influential “Person of the Year”.

If you had been living under a rock, #MeToo is a movement where women who have been harassed, assaulted, bullied and otherwise vilified (primarily by men), came out and stood with their sisters.

The movement started with casting-couch revelations about Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein and flushed out similarly bad behaviour all over the world. The Australia media chimed in, outing former TV gardening host Don Burke for a series of alleged indiscretions. Sydney’s Telegraph made an allegation about Australian actor Geoffrey Rush, who responded with a writ for defamation.

On a more positive note, 2017 turned up an unlikely winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. The prize went to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). The organization received the award for drawing attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.

There were other examples of positive news in 2017, amid the political scandals, terrorist attacks, humanitarian crises and natural disasters.

A December 19 report by Katrina Sichlau, News Corp Australia Network, found that renewable energy employed 10 million people worldwide.

(Aside – that makes the Queensland Premier’s contested claim that the proposed Adani coal mine would employ 10,000 people look rather sad).

The same article said France and Britain had launched a Clean Air Plan which will make sense to people who have visited either country this year or last. In a year when Queensland’s land-clearing reached Brazil-like proportions, Pakistan planted one billion trees.

If I may add to this optimistic list, New Zealand elected a woman in her 30s as Prime Minister (Jacinda Ardern), largely at the whim of (Queen)-maker Winston Peters, a veteran politician who saw sense in forming an alliance with the savvy young Labour leader.

Probably the less we say about Donald Trump the better, as he seems to thrive on publicity, be it good or bad. Trump continues to use Twitter like a flame-thrower, this year setting diplomatic fires in North Korea, Israel, and Germany and within the US itself.

Trump reportedly plans to go ahead with a visit to the UK in 2018, despite the recent twitter row with UK PM Theresa May. If you’ll recall, Trump retweeted videos posted by radical right group Britain First, inaccurately blaming Muslims in the UK for terrorist attacks.

There has been much misreporting about Trump’s ‘working’ visit to the UK. The White House at one point thanked the Queen for her “gracious invitation” to meet with President Trump at Buckingham Palace. The Guardian Weekly reported on December 15 that a formal state visit was not envisaged. “The Queen is likely to be preoccupied with preparations for a Commonwealth summit.”

As myth-buster Snopes points out, there is a long standing tradition that the Queen does not intervene in political disputes.

We wish you all an ‘annus mirabilis’ in 2018.


The FOMM alt-Christmas playlist

Alt-Christmas playlist Santa escaping shopping centres to go fishing in Ewen Maddock Dam, photo by Bob Wilson

The first thing you’ll notice about my carefully curated alt-Christmas playlist is the absence of Six White Boomers and The 12 Days of Christmas. I’ll walk out of the room if someone starts on that tedious epic. I was intending to write a Grinch-like piece this week, but instead decided to share my eclectic view of the world through an alt-Christmas playlist.

What set me off on this tangent, dear reader, was making visits to three different shopping centres in the past three weeks. It wasn’t so much the crowds, the noise, the proliferation of tattoos or the inappropriate wardrobe choices that got me down. It was being assailed, or should that be wassailed on all sides by different streams of Christmas music. It ranged from Bing and that tired old northern hemisphere trope to Jose Feliciano wishing us a merry one from the heart of his bottom.

For someone whose preferred background music is Bach or Riley Lee playing the shakuhachi, it is an assault on the senses. It seemed to me, though, that most people were oblivious to Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman, as they trudged around shopping centres at Carindale, North Lakes and Morayfield. In fact, as their laden trolleys would indicate, they seemed intent upon spending.

A survey this week by finder.com.au reckons Australian shoppers will spend $492 (each) on Christmas gifts alone. Women will apparently spend $58 more than men. Finder’s Bessie Hassan said the 2017 spending estimate was slightly lower than 2016, when Australians spent on average $539 on Christmas presents.

The shopping swarms were probably to be expected, given the 3.6% rise in the consumer confidence index between November and December. The Westpac Melbourne Institute’s Index is 5% above the average for the September quarter, which saw a ‘disturbing’ slump in consumer spending.

While consumer confidence may have bounced back at a critical time for retailers and their landlords, the keepers of the index are circumspect.

“…with ongoing weak income growth, a low savings rate and high debt levels, we cannot be confident that consumers have the capacity to sharply lift spending, despite higher confidence.”

The irony of my three visits to large shopping centres is, had I planned ahead to buy the small but well-chosen gifts, I could have done it online and saved myself the grief.

So to the FOMM alt-Christmas playlist; they’re not all leftie, anti-Christmas rants and there’s a thread of peace and love running through all of them.

There are a couple of genuine carols, a peace anthem or two, some Australian content and more.

My music correspondent Franky’s Dad offered to create a Spotify alt-Christmas play list for me. Until he did that, I had not subscribed to Spotify. (Hands up who else has no idea what ‘Spotify’ is. Ed.) Unlike many list stories you will find on the Internet, these songs are not in order of preference. I happen to like all of them, but feel free to disagree or tell me which alt-Christmas song I should have included instead.

All of the links here are to YouTube videos. Just dip into them as the spirit moves you. For those who have Spotify, here’s the link:

1/ The Little Drummer Boy, interpreted here by my favourite acapella group, Pentatonix. If you like the group and this genre of music, they do a splendid version of Jolene with songwriter Dolly Parton.

2/ River, by Joni Mitchell. Ah, what a wistful, sad song. They’re cutting down trees and putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace. But Joni just wants a river to skate away on (as you do if you live in Canada).

3/ Fairytale of New York, The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, a bawdy anti-Christmas ballad of drunkenness and fractious relationships. I like the bit where the boys from the NYPD sing Galway Bay. A classic.

4/ I’m growing a beard downstairs for Christmas, Kate Miller-Heidke and The Beards. This quirky, M-rated Christmas satire won the best Comedy/Novelty song category in the 2015 International Songwriting Competition.

5/ 7 O’Clock News/Silent Night, Simon & Garfunkel, 1966. Half a century later, this timeless carol’s theme of peace and goodwill is still being drowned out by the negativity of global news.

6/ Suddenly it’s Christmas Loudon Wainwright III. Yep, it starts with Halloween (forget about Thanksgiving, that’s just a buffet in between). As Loudo sings – it’s not over till it’s over and they throw away the tree.” The Spotify version is a remix, but the impudent tone is still there.

7/ Happy Xmas (War is Over). One of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s many pleas for world peace.

8/ Getting Ready for Christmas Day, Paul Simon. From early in November to the last day of December, he’s got money matter weighing him down. Simon cleverly intersperses the lyric with a 1941 sermon, voiced by black American preacher, Rev J.M Gates.

9/ The Silver Stars, Brisbane Birralee Voices. This is an Australian carol by William James which has also been sung by our Maleny chamber choir, Tapestry.

10/ Little Saint Nick, the Beach Boys. I’ve got Macca from Australia all Over to thank for this as he played this merry tune to close out his show last week. It sounds a bit like a rebadged Little Deuce Coupe, but who’s complaining.

11/ How to Make Gravy, Paul Kelly. Where would we be in Australia without the letter to Dan from Joe, who’ll be spending Christmas in jail? Kiss my kids on Christmas Eve and make sure you add a dollop of tomato sauce to the gravy.

The Christians and the Pagans, Dar Williams. The definitive song about disaffected families and how they come together at Christmas and try to find common ground.

(Our friend Rebecca Wright does a cracker version of this one).

Meanwhile, people, there are only 2+ days more shopping days to spend your quota. The Australian Securities and Investment Commission’s Money Smart tells us that the average credit card debt after the holiday season is $1,666.  While 82% of Australians will pay this off in up to 6 months, 11% will take six to 24 months; 4% will take two years or more and 3% believe they will never pay it off.

If you are worried about waking up with a debt hangover, go here, where you’ll find helpful tips, It’s probably too late for this year, but as Loudon Wainwright observes, of all such holidays, ‘it’s not over till it’s over’.

Season’s Greetings and take care on the roads – Bob and Laurel.

Flashback to Christmas 2015

Catch a (brush) turkey for Christmas

Brush turkey for Christmas dinner? – image by She Who Takes Bird Photos, aka Laurel Wilson

The only thing more difficult than taking a photo of a brush turkey is selling the notion of preparing one for a (budget) Christmas lunch. Those of you quick on the uptake will have already registered that Mr FOMM is being ironic. Brush turkeys as you may know are a protected and even endangered species. Besides, they have a “stuff you’ attitude which is refreshing (bok!) And the chicks are cute.

As it happens, turkey is the least popular meat for people laying in provisions for Christmas. The ubiquitous Christmas ham leads the pack by a good margin, along with chicken, then turkey.

Northern hemisphere folk might find this hard to fathom, but rich hot food is not a priority for the Australian Christmas lunch. No, we prefer ham, chicken, prawns, a variety of cold salads and condiments, followed up with fruit salads, ice-cream, custard and yoghurt, all of it more befitting our typical 30+ degree Christmas Day. The diehards do Christmas pudding, but as we all know, it takes a long afternoon nap to sleep it off.

Retailers work hard at this time of year to sell us on the idea of (a) over-eating (b) over-spending and (c) eating food we rarely eat. The latter includes turkey, which has its biggest sales between December 20 and 24. I’m aware turkey is very big in the US and Canada on November 23 (Thanksgiving). According to the University of Illinois, 88% of Americans surveyed by the National Turkey Federation eat turkey on Thanksgiving; 46 million turkeys are eaten each Thanksgiving, 22 million at Christmas and 19 million at Easter

Compare that with Australia, where 3 to 5 million turkeys are killed and sold for meat every year. On average, Australians eat approximately 1kg of turkey per person per year, most of which is consumed during one week at Christmas.

You’ll pay about $110 for an organic turkey, or about $22 a kilo.

You can find loads of information on the Internet about meat consumption, much of it available on animal welfare websites, which point out the factory-like habitat of animals being fattened for consumption. I have a few things to say about that and one is that after being sent on an assignment to one of Queensland’s largest (cattle) feedlots, I went vegetarian for two or three months.

As you may not know, there are 2.1 million Australians (11.2%) who say they are vegetarians (Roy Morgan Research, 2016). Vegans are lumped in with vegetarians, though it’s not the same thing.

If you were curious about what vegos eat at Christmas, musician Emma Nixon says she makes a roast vegie, quinoa and lentil salad.

“It’s good hot or cold. I take the leftovers to Woodford

Another muso, Karen Law, says her family eats fish but is otherwise fully vegan. This year they might throw some salmon on the bbq, plus a lot of salad, bbq sweet potato and kipfler potatoes.

Folk dancers Peter and Linda Scharf favour tofu kebabs, with satay sauce, falafels, bean patties, salads with extra trimmings and dressings. Not to mention plum pudding (no suet) and a couple of glasses of ‘fermented grape juice’.

To spew or not to spew

Meanwhile, non-vegan Aussies are very big on eating prawns at Christmas – 50,000 tonnes were consumed last year at this time. Just so you know, 80% of prawns sold in Australia are imported and it costs about $50 a kilo to buy locally-caught prawns.

As I am one of an indeterminate number of people for whom prawns induce violent chundering*, I cannot explain the appeal. I watch people spending inordinate amounts of time shelling prawns (is that the right term) and it always seems to me there is more to throw out than what makes it into the ice bucket.

One Christmas past we returned from a holiday at the beach to be greeted with an awful smell, which was quickly traced to a full, broken, leaking and putrid wheelie bin on the street outside our house. Someone had waited until our (clean) bin was collected and replaced it with their munted* bin full of prawn waste. Eeuuw, people!

Full credit to Brisbane City Council waste management who (a) picked up the offending bin within 24 hours and (b) replaced it with a brand-new bin.

But I digress (yet again)

We are a wealthy country with relatively high disposable income, low-ish unemployment and a reputation for spending more than we earn.

Australian Retailer Association executive director Russell Zimmerman told SBS News last year that food and drink accounts for 40% per cent of the total Christmas spend.

The Pork Producers of Australia said that in the four weeks leading up to Christmas, 8.4 million kilos of ham was sold in 2015 and about the same in 2016. In terms of traditional bone-in hams, it was about 4.3 million kilograms in 2015 and 4.6 million kilograms in 2016 – an increase of 7.6%.

Our local research found that the price of Christmas hams can range from as little as $7 a kilo in discount supermarkets to $18 a kilo for organic and/or free range ham bought from a butcher. A premium boneless leg of ham could cost you upwards of $30 a kilo.

That seems cheap when you read about Spain’s jamon imberico, the truffle of the pork world. A 7.5 kg leg can cost between $A180 and $A720. Iberian ham comes from blackfoot pigs, raised on pasture planted with oak trees. According to my favourite source (The Guardian Weekly), the demand for Iberian ham in China is such that the escalating price is denying humble Spaniards their once-a-year treat.

Just so you know what you’re eating, all fresh pork sold in Australia is 100% Australian grown. However, approximately two thirds of processed pork (ham, bacon and smallgoods products) is made from frozen boneless pork imported from places like Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada and the United States.

According to an international study by Caterwings, Australians chew their way through 111.5 kilograms of meat per year, per person. (Someone’s eating our share). This data probably does not take into account the 11.2% of Australians who are vegetarians and vegans, the 604,000 Muslims as well as those of the Jewish faith who do not eat pork; or the unknown number of people who have developed a mammalian meat allergy by exposure to ticks (more on that topic next week).

If you can’t afford $90 or so for a leg of ham, I have a suggestion. There are these prehistoric-looking birds that roam around the scrub. They are notorious for scratching up people’s vegie gardens and using leaf litter and mulch to make huge mounds, inside which they lay their eggs. Yes, they are protected and indeed endangered (the chicks are left to fend for themselves as soon as they can walk around). But who’s to know if you knock one off, pluck and gut it, stuff it and cook for 17 or 18 hours or until tender? Don’t forget the basil.

Just don’t throw the waste and left-over meat in the wheelie bin and forget to put the bin out. That would be unneighbourly.

*Munted – Kiwi for ‘damaged or unusable.’

*chundering – Oz for vomiting

Christmas 2016

A new way to pay off a speeding fine

FOMM-mobile, caught for speeding

There came in the mail a rare thing – a ‘Go Fast Award’ or speeding fine. In this case, a speed camera captured our Ford Territory in transit on Caloundra Road (off Steve Irwin Way leading into Landsborough). Oh, you know that road too?

The infringement notice alleges the vehicle was doing 68kmh in a 60kmh zone. Fair enough, those are the road rules and I broke them.

“Tch, tch,” said She Who Never Speeds, consulting her diary to confirm that it was me, not she, who was driving at the time the award was made. “You might get in trouble using their photo,” she added.

Their photo my arse!

The speeding fine is $168 and I will also accrue one demerit point on a previously unsullied drivers’ licence. No big deal, you’d think. Alas, this will put a dent in my personal spending money, the next tranche of which is not due until January 1.

You should complain!” said She Who Never Speeds, “What about that money tucked away in your TAB account? Imagine if you were on Newstart!”

I did some homework on the Queensland Treasury offshoot called the State Penalties Enforcement Register (SPER), which will come to an arrangement if you can’t pay fines by the due date.

Debts registered with SPER  come from a wide pool of infringement notices and court orders. Every now and then one of the tabloids will spice up a slow news day with a beat-up drawn from statistics kept by SPER. The most common tactic is to focus on which postcode boasts the biggest SPER debt.

The ‘Struggle Street’ approach uncovers Logan City/Kingston, the Gold Coast and surrounds and Ipswich/Booval as the regions with the highest SPER debt (all-up tally $73.56 million). By stark contrast, the postcode 4468 (Morven, (near Augathella), has a SPER debt of just $7000. The postcode 4025 (Moreton Island) is another with a low SPER debt of $15,000 (people hooning about the sand dunes in 4WDs, no doubt).

The lower numbers in such isolated places may indicate fewer drivers and/or a more law-abiding population. The truth is rather more prosaic – an absence of speed cameras. It is no coincidence that the suburbs with the highest SPER debt are those in proximity to motorways and heavily trafficked main roads.

There’s no way to dress up SPER’s unhappy bottom line. As of October 2017, SPER debts totalled $1.20 billion. Treasurer Curtis Pitt told the ABC in May that SPER debts had doubled over five years to more than 1.5 million new cases. The Labor government has blamed the increase on the previous LNP regime, for loading up SPER debts with unpaid tolls from bridges and tunnels.

You can get some sense of how long it might take SPER to rein in this runaway debt by looking at its collection rate ($283 million in 2016-2017 and $93 million for the five months to October). Nevertheless SPER managed to keep growth of the debt pool down to 3% (compared to 15% in 2015-2016).

If you will allow me to illustrate the SPER dilemma for low-income Queenslanders, consider an unemployed person existing on the paltry fortnightly payment provided by Newstart. SPER will probably settle for $20 a fortnight, automatically taken from the welfare recipient’s payment.

As Harriet (not her real name) bewailed of her most recent speeding fine, “It will take me 10 years to repay all this (expletive) debt and in the meantime I keep getting (more expletives) what you call Go Fast Awards. You smug bastard!”

But wait. While Harriet emulates her pet fox terrier’s habit of chasing its tail, SPER has come up with a new scheme to help people suffering genuine hardship.

From today, Queenslanders facing hardship can apply for Work and Development Orders (WDOs). People unable to repay accumulated fines and penalties will be able to clear their debts by attending counselling or education courses. Previously the only recourse was to perform unpaid community work.

WDO is a case management system which considers a person’s whole debt history and circumstance rather than just focusing on individual debt.

WDOs will be available to people who are experiencing domestic or family violence, are homeless or under financial hardship, or those with a mental illness, intellectual or cognitive disability or serious substance use disorder.

A SPER spokesperson said WDOs would replace the Fine Option Order system, with debts reduced at a rate of $30 an hour. Participants are allowed to work up to 33 hours per month.

SPER will now partner with government and community-based sponsors who will manage people undertaking financial or other counselling, education, vocational or life skills courses, and unpaid community work.

The Community Service scheme was first introduced in Toowoomba in the mid-1980s as an alternative to fines and custodial sentences. Courts order offenders to complete a set number of hours of supervised community work. Those who do not complete their ‘hours’ get breached and are liable to be re-sentenced for the original offence.

The 2016-2017 Attorney-General’s annual report cites examples of the kind of unpaid work offenders may be required to do. In the Southern Region, offenders from Ipswich Probation and Parole can now perform community service making paper or crochet poppies for donation to local Councils and RSLs (for events such as Anzac Day and Remembrance Day).

In the Brisbane region, 17 offenders spent eight days over a period of four weeks repairing and painting the Sandgate-Redcliffe District Cricket Club’s fence. A total of 271 hours was spent working with club members to repair damaged palings and apply two coats of paint to approximately 1km of fencing.

In 2016–17, a total of 371,262 hours of court-ordered community service was completed in Queensland, equating to a value of approximately $9.1 million. While this equates to less than 1% of SPER debt resolved in 2016-2017, the community benefits are hard to dispute. The social merits of WDOs are also laudable, although some would see this as being ‘soft on crime.’

Meanwhile, what about the speeding fine issued to She Who Never Speeds, due for payment by December 19?

If you are one of the thousands of Queenslanders who got caught by a speed camera either exceeding the limit or running a red light, you know how this goes. The ‘ticket’ goes to the owner of the registered vehicle. If he/she was not the driver at the time the alleged offence was committed, the owner fills out a statutory declaration stating he/she was not the driver. If She Who Never Speeds sends the statutory declaration in a week or so before the due date, by the time a new infringement notice is sent out to the driver (me), the fine will not have to be paid until (guessing) the end of January, 2018.

In the interim, I’m wondering if I can wangle an informal WDO with SWNS – we pay the fine out of general housekeeping and I will carry out 5.6 hours of (supervised) heavy gardening. People who know what She once did for a living will find this wryly amusing.